Philosophers and psychologists may provide an explanation for the tedium some of us feel during lockdown.
The nineteenth century German philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche once asked: “Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves?”
That’s a question millions around the world, with the privilege of self-isolating themselves amid the coronavirus pandemic, now find themselves forced to confront.
Many developed states have either ordered mandatory curfews or strongly advised people to stay at home for all but essential trips. In some cases people are now starting their third week at home with the possibility that they could be stuck there for months more.
For many of those under lockdown, there may be remote working obligations, child care responsibilities, Zoom hangouts, exercise, or a newly found penchant for cleaning or cooking to provide a break from the tedium.
Nevertheless, the spectre of boredom lurks, appearing most frequently after a long and unsuccessful trawl of offerings on Netflix or when a book or mobile phone can no longer hold the attention. A pang of ache in the wrist while refreshing a Twitter feed can give way to that most dreaded of questions: “So what now?”
Why do we get bored?
The consequences of boredom are not trivial. Psychologists have long documented its link to the development of harmful habits, such as binge eating and substance abuse. People who are bored are also at heightened risk of developing depression and anxiety.
But at the same time, philosophers and scientists have had a hard time defining what boredom actually is and why we feel it.
A 2012 paper by psychologist John D Eastwood summarises boredom as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”
Eastwood based that definition on the synthesis of four rival theories for the phenomenon. These are: the arousal, existential, psychodynamic, and cognitive theories of boredom.
For the sake of brevity and relevance, let’s single out two of those.
The first- the arousal theory- seems most relevant to boredom induced by the lockdown. Eastwood’s paper defines it as the “nonoptimal arousal that ensues when there is a mismatch between an individual’s needed arousal and the availability of environmental stimulation.”
Put simply, we feel the urge to be stimulated but our environment is not able to satisfy that need.
Coronavirus-related lockdowns have restricted our stimulatory environments to our homes and social media. Whereas before the pandemic, there were cafes, nightclubs, and football stadiums, now we have only the contents and members of our homes, as well as those we can reach virtually through technology.
The second, the existential theory, has a more broader explanation on the phenomenon of boredom but can perhaps provide a way out of our current tedious impasse.
We will allow Eastwood to provide his definition before going our own way.
The York University academic explains: “Existential theories argue that boredom is caused by a lack of life meaning or purpose; boredom ensues when an individual gives up on or fails to articulate and participate in activities that are consistent with his values.”
He further describes existential boredom as: “A sense of emptiness, meaninglessness and a paralysis of agency- the bored individual is unable to find impetus for action.”
Boredom and the meaning of life
It seems like a dramatic jump to go from discussing the boredom felt while trying to find something good to watch on Netflix to talking about the meaning of life, but the two are intertwined, at least according to the existentialists.
Explaining philosophical ideas is hard at the best of times, let alone explaining their relevance to why you feel bored during an ongoing pandemic, so bear with us.
The starting point of existential thought is that all attempts at understanding the meaning of life start with the individual, and not an all governing cosmic order.
Human beings must reconcile the urge to find purpose in their existence, with the seeming indifference of the world around them. That inherent contradiction is the cause of anxiety, which philosophers have described as angst or dread.
Not many people are thinking about the purpose of their lives during their morning commute, shopping trip, or coffee date. Normal life provides plenty of distraction from the feeling of existential anxiety.
For some, the coronavirus pandemic will have created an upheaval of that sense of normality, exposing its construction on chaotic underpinnings, and forcing them to recognise the fundamental randomness of their environment.
This confrontation between individual purpose and chaotic reality can lead to an inertia from which boredom with everyday life is a byproduct - Ordinary activities lose their stimulatory appeal, as we can no longer find meaning in them.
Boredom and creativity
It is important to make clear that existential anxiety is not tied to specific temporary situations like the coronavirus lockdown but understanding it can provide a way out of the boredom some of us may currently feel.
That’s because for existentialist thinkers like Nietzsche and Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, boredom was not just a weight dragging down humans into the pits of despair, but could also be the impetus for dramatic individual change and transformation.
Nietzsche described boredom as the “unpleasant calm that precedes creative acts.”
While for Kierkegaard, it was our abhorrence of boredom that provided the impulse for creativity.
“Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion,” he wrote.
There is some scientific evidence to support this link between boredom and creativity.
A 2012 study by Sandi Mann, an occupational psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, suggested that participating in boring activities led to better performance in certain subsequent creative activities.
Interestingly, Mann’s research provides a possible mechanism for this link, suggesting that daydreaming may prove to be an important vector in turning boredom into creativity.
At the risk of oversimplifying, Mann’s explanation is summarised as follows: Boredom forces people to seek out forms of stimulation. Unable to find it externally, the focus shifts to internal thoughts and feelings, which manifests as daydreaming. That inner stimulation gained by daydreaming compensates for the external lack of stimulation. This leads to more creative problem solving.
With fewer external distractions due to the pandemic, it could be that many more of us start looking internally rather than externally for our sources of stimulation.
Recent articles by the Washington Post and the Atlantic have described how Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare wrote some of their greatest works during times of pandemic. It may well have been that a series of daydreams brought on by boredom gave the world calculus and Macbeth.