Pandemic of Boredom Amid Surge of COVID-19

Ying Li and Shabnam Mousavi

May 29, 2020

Within only a few months, the coronavirus has claimed 340,000 lives, with over five million infections reported around the globe. Lockdown, shutdown, and isolation have been the dominant responses by governments and people. In a recent 2020 study by Ying Li, Shenghua Luan and Ralph Hertwig, people in China and the US were asked to write down five words to describe their feelings from the previous week. Overall, both Chinese and Americans experienced negative emotions more than usual at the time the pandemic peaked in their respective countries. Surprisingly, the usual suspects, fear and anxiety, were closely matched and even exceeded by the feeling of boredom. Americans went from 5% of them being bored in February to 24% at the peak of the pandemic in April. Chinese were even more bored during their peak period in February, at a 40% rate, which dropped to 17% in April.
Boredom is a familiar feeling to the modern soul, born out of unintended leisure (a luxury) or resulting from a lack of wherewithal to perform (frustration). It can arise during a peaceful beach holiday, but also when exhausted at the end of long working hours. It can lead to anxiety, or surface together with a sense of joyous freedom. Boredom appears to be one label for different states of mind, making it hard for psychologists to come up with a clear-cut definition.
In his book Boredom: A lively history, the classicist Peter Tookey considers two types of boredom, each deserving separate treatment. Simple boredom has a clear cause and disappears when the cause is removed, like the feeling experienced while sitting through lengthy pointless meetings. Existential boredom, by contrast, has no easily identifiable cause or ties to a temporal situation. This latter type of boredom is often expressed as a general loss of meaning or purpose to life.
At the root of simple boredom is modernity. Industrialization led to people leaving family mills and farms for large factories, where working hours were both longer and more repetitive. This capitalistic mode of production infused daily life with standardized routines and bureaucracy. Highly predictable environments such as nearly identical shopping malls around the world are a case in point.
Existential boredom too gains higher ground in modern life. Industrialization has catalyzed secularization, individualism, smaller family size, and dismissal of rituals—transferring the heavy burden of answering existential questions from religion to individuals. Meanwhile, improved quality of life has brought us ample time to ponder these questions. The search for existential meaning deprived of religion places existential boredom intimately close to modernity.
The English word boredom is a modern word, believed to be popularized by Charles Dickens in his 1853 novel Bleak House. Consequently, the historical word frequency depository of Google Ngram Corpus reveals a 10-fold increase in the use of the terms bored/boredom during the 20th century. The feeling, however, could well have been experienced cognitively in any period of the history.
The cognitive psychologist John D. Eastwood attempted an operational definition of boredom independent of historical periods by referring to the states of the mind: an aversive state that occurs when one fails to engage attentively with a satisfying activity. The fact remains that the passage of time has made concentration more challenging. The most precious resource over which most businesses (think tech giants from Silicon Valley) compete is consumers’attention, just as Herbert Simon foresaw in 1962: "a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention" [Simon, The Architecture of Complexity]. We continuously shred away our attention span by checking emails 10 times a day, Instagram 20 times, Facebook 30 times, and so forth. An abundance of stimuli in the environment does not enrich our lives in a fulfilling way. It does, however, fade our ability to engage exclusively in a single activity. In comparison, it is not trivial that the information-barren environment of premodern societies necessarily made life more boring.
Feeling bored is universal and timeless. While modernity may have enhanced boredom, the current COVID-19 pandemic has made it (simply) the most prevailing emotion. Like all emotions, boredom may also have its own evolutionary value. It signals that what you are doing is not what you really want to do, and induces a push to escape from the boring situation. Where to take the mind out of boredom is more than often a difficult decision. You can choose to leave your comfort zone and try something new, something that requires effort and focus but also brings reward and a sense of achievement. Alternatively, like the man in the featured painting entitled “Boredom” (Walter Sickert, Ennui, 1913, London, Tate), you can resort to smoking (or today’s equivalent, addictive apps) for quick and easy gratification before eventually falling back into an even deeper sense of boredom. Today, when entire societies are overwhelmed with boredom, does the only imaginable escape lie in returning to pre-pandemic daily routines?

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