The Benefits of Boredom

COVID-19 is going to last a long while. Here’s the psychology behind making the best of it.

The novel coronavirus has killed hundreds of thousands of people. It has overwhelmed health care systems around the world and caused mass unemployment as governments have enacted physical-distancing measures to stop the spread of the disease. Simply put, life during the pandemic has been a hellish nightmare. But for many Americans—at least the ones who haven’t fallen ill themselves or had a loved one fall ill—it has been something else: dreadfully boring. 

Out of My Skull:
The Psychology of Boredom
by James Danckert and
John D. Eastwood
Harvard University Press, 288 pp.

A quick scan of the internet more or less confirms this. A Wired essay warned, “This pandemic is perilously boring.” Forbes published a story on the “15 ways to fight boredom and anxiety.” The Los Angeles Times ran a piece with the headline “You cancelled your travel and you’re bored. Here’s how to cope.” CNN aggregated the “creative ways” people were combating the boredom of self-isolation. 

The logic makes sense: Millions of people are restricted to their homes with little to do but binge-watch Netflix shows or finally take a crack at Anna Karenina. Even white-collar professionals who are lucky enough to be able to work from home are stuck in the same place all day, every day. 

But the current situation could make you feel a lot of things—frustrated, angry, distressed. The limitless digital content, even if unfulfilling, can theoretically keep us occupied. And the pandemic itself is perversely riveting. The nightly news includes segments that you might have once found only in a Ridley Scott film. If anything, this is one of the scariest moments any of us will ever live through. Why, then, has it triggered such a pervasive sense of boredom? 

According to the psychologists James Danckert and John Eastwood, the answer is likely because it has stripped us of our agency. In a new book, Out of My Skull, they argue that boredom is more than just the feeling we get when our minds are insufficiently stimulated. It’s a sign that our capacity to act as authors of our own lives has been challenged or constricted.

That can happen in tedious ways we all have experienced. You need to get your car registration renewed, so you go to the DMV but are forced to wait in line, and there’s nothing you can do until they call your ticket. It can also happen in deeper ways. People who have jobs that don’t interest them tend to feel existentially unfulfilled because they aren’t doing what they believe they should be. In both cases, you can wind up filling in hours or simply going through the motions just to get things done. As Danckert and Eastwood point out, there’s good reason why the German word for boredom, Langeweile, translates literally into “long while.” Without something to meaningfully engage our minds, we turn to the only thing left: tracking the passage of time. 

But while boredom has long been a subject of philosophy, it has rarely been treated as a subject of psychology. Out of My Skull tries to fill that vacuum. It makes the case that boredom itself is neither good nor bad, but that our adaptive approaches to it will determine whether we use it to our detriment or our advantage. Some people turn to self-destructive behavior when bored; for instance, those in substance abuse treatment programs often cite boredom as a reason they relapse. But Danckert and Eastwood insist that the feeling can ultimately be useful if we recognize it as an indication that we need to change what we’re doing. “We need to be engaged, mentally occupied, giving expression to our desires and exercising our skills and talents,” they write. “In short, we have a need for agency. When this need is fulfilled, we flourish. When this need is thwarted, we feel bored, disengaged.” 

Of course, making that kind of change is easier said than done, especially during a pandemic. Stay-at-home orders are almost by definition a challenge to agency. But boredom will stay with us long after the coronavirus is eradicated. While it may be painful, boredom can be one of our greatest self-correctives—so long as we learn to understand what it’s telling us. 

Danckert and Eastwood seek to show that boredom on any scale—whether it’s from a pointless meeting or an inability to find excitement in your life—stems from a crisis of agency. Psychologically, they argue, human beings have a need to be both engaged and effective. When we’re neither, we become restless and irritated. 

The frustration is a symptom of our having failed to take charge. That’s what makes boredom distinct from apathy—which is when we simply don’t care. People only become bored, under the authors’ formulation, because they care. “We are tormented precisely because of our desire for something satisfying to do, and we are bored precisely because that urgent desire goes unsatisfied,” they write. 

The problem for many people is that, when bored, they resort to what Danckert and Eastwood call “maladaptive boredom remedies,” such as couch surfing, spending too much time on Facebook, skydiving, or worse—abusing alcohol and drugs, compulsively eating, committing adultery. Those activities rarely alleviate boredom because they don’t actually fulfill that basic human impulse to be impactful. Often, boredom comes with a quandary: We want to do something that satisfies us, but we don’t know what that “something” is. Tolstoy described boredom as having “the desire for desires.” In such situations, it’s common to resort to “easy” but ultimately unfulfilling activities.

This dilemma also helps explain why all the articles and listicles published since mid-March on what you can do to fight boredom include advice like “Clean your house” or “Make a new playlist”—actions that result in your having completed something tangible. When left with nothing, or little, to do but pass the time, we seek pursuits that not only keep us busy but are goal oriented.

Of course, not all boredom is the same. In 2011, Joseph Epstein wrote in Commentary that there were two types, situational and existential: “Situational boredom is caused by the temporary tedium everyone at one time or another encounters: the dull sermon, the longueur-laden novel, the pompous gent extolling his prowess at the used-tire business.” This is the kind of boredom that house cleaning and playlist making can resolve. “Existential boredom,” by contrast, “is thought to be the result of existence itself, caused by modern culture and therefore inescapable.” This experience—which is similar to what the French call ennui—is harder to address. Making your life more exciting and fulfilling can require some soul searching, and likely some trial and error. 

In the COVID-19 world, however, it’s more complicated in both cases. Our day-to-day activities are necessarily constrained. If you’re trapped in a job or living situation you don’t like, or if you’ve lost your job and are dealing with extreme uncertainty, there’s not much you can do to change your lot until the pandemic subsides. Social distancing itself may be meaningful—it saves lives, after all—but it adds a layer of difficulty in the battle against boredom. 

The crux of Danckert and Eastwood’s argument is that boredom can be good for us, if we learn to heed its guidance. From my own personal experience, this seems valid. There are only a couple of times in my life when I have really felt bored. One was situational: When I was in high school, I had a monotonous job at a local ice rink. Eventually, I quit. The other was existential: During a period in college, I was a romantic English major who dreamed endlessly of being a writer but never did any writing. For whatever reason, I wasn’t allowing myself to put my interests and talents (limited though they may be) to use. All that changed when I responded to an email about openings to work for my school newspaper. After a few months as a staff writer, I was promoted to editorial page editor—a position that allowed me to pick the topics the paper should weigh in on, help decide the paper’s position, and then write the editorials. 

Boredom is more than just the feeling we get when our minds are insufficiently stimulated. It’s a sign that our capacity to act as authors of our own lives has been challenged or constricted.

That gig helped turn me into what I am now—a full-time journalist. And I haven’t felt much boredom since. That includes during this pandemic, despite my spending it in complete physical self-isolation. I attribute this in part to the fact that I’m fortunate to have a job that I enjoy and that keeps me challenged and intellectually stimulated. In fact, I’m probably now busier than ever. 

But it’s also because I have a set of interests that I’ve been able to cultivate with the limited amount of free time I do have. I have been a cinephile since childhood, and I’ve written movie reviews since college. Today, the movies have once again come to my rescue. I’ve been able to take advantage of the lockdown, ending almost every day by turning off the lights, putting my phone on silent, and screening a film. Each week, I program my own retrospectives, either around a director, an actor, a genre, or a film movement, which include a mix of films I’ve seen before and ones I haven’t. 

The success of this habit fits with a point Danckert and Eastwood make—that you’re generally least bored when you take on ventures that strike a proper balance between familiarity and variety. If you have too much of either, life gets pretty boring. If you watch the same film again and again, no matter how good it is you’re eventually going to get bored. That’s from being overloaded with too much repetition. At the same time, if you’re a college freshman and take a graduate-level semantics course, you will be bombarded with tons of academic jargon and concepts with which you are unfamiliar. You won’t be able to really participate and will likely get pretty damn bored. That’s from being overloaded with too much newness. The film-watching regimen I’ve carved out keeps my attention not only because it consists of exceptional works of art but also because I’m able to connect what I’m learning from new films to what I already know from the ones I’ve seen.

I recognize that it’s a privilege to have these outlets; not everyone has a job they enjoy or the same level of comfort I have. Millions of people are facing greater hardship during the crisis than ever before. Indeed, even before the pandemic, many Americans had crushingly boring jobs while aching for interests, hobbies, and relationships that would give their inner lives richness. 

If there is any policy lever to address the boredom epidemic, then, it may come in the form of expanding our higher education system. One of the goals of higher learning should be to give people the ability to find employment that is interesting and that challenges them and utilizes their talents. Such an expansion might be one of the biggest positives that could come from the widespread boredom of this period. Ideally, it could trigger society to start prioritizing how to create the pathways for more of us to get jobs that not only pay the bills but also nourish our souls.

Boredom, of course, is a universal and timeless phenomenon. The pandemic has only accentuated its role in our lives and forced us to confront its meaning. It has demonstrated, for example, that the digital revolution has done little to assuage boredom. Even with smartphones, social media, laptops, and other ubiquitous technology, we’re still not satisfied. The unlimited content has actually left many of us oversaturated. Danckert and Eastwood cite studies that show people’s—and animals’—boredom levels increase when they are deluged with too many options at once.

That’s where Out of My Skull is at its strongest—when it deconstructs boredom as an experience. It’s at its weakest when it extrapolates theories that it can’t quite substantiate. There’s a passage that blames boredom, among other things, for jingoism, citing a study that found bored judges issued less severe jail sentences to members of their own cultural group. That may be true, but jingoism is on the rise worldwide—from Brazil to Turkey to Israel—for many apparent reasons. I don’t imagine Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Benjamin Netanyahu all wake up each morning feeling bored. 

Ultimately, however, the book offers an essential insight. Readers will leave with a greater understanding of what boredom is and what we can do with it. More than anything, it explains why boredom is something we shouldn’t fight so much as listen to. “We should neither mask nor try to outrun our boredom,” Danckert and Eastwood write. “In fact, responding well to the boredom signal gives it value.”

The late Russian-American writer Joseph Brodsky had a similar thought. In a famous commencement address he delivered at Dartmouth College in 1989, he extolled the virtues of boredom, which he said “puts your existence into its proper perspective, the net result of which is precision and humility.” 

In other words, don’t let boredom bring you down. Use it to your benefit.

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Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is digital editor at the Washington Monthly.