It’s Okay to be Bored, But What You’re Feeling Isn’t Boredom
Meet despair, depression’s restless cousin, and learn how to overcome it
For those of us who concern ourselves with personal productivity, boredom can feel like an admission of failure.
There’s always something we ought to be doing, and if we aren’t doing that thing, we feel guilty. That’s the trouble with the Sisyphean drive to optimize and micromanage every aspect of our lives. It pretends that time, like a cup, is only useful when filled.
But sometimes—especially during these times—it’s not.
This Isn’t Boredom
Work is curtailed or vanishing, social obligations have thinned, and what we’re left with is an unfamiliar and often uncomfortable remainder.
It doesn’t feel like an abundance of free time; it’s time, sure, but polluted by worry and doubt. It feels like an inability to operate at our normal capacity. We’re confined. Are we making ends meet? Are we doing enough to help? We feel diminished, somehow, and struggle to place that feeling. Reaching for an optimistic explanation, we find the closest analogue to be “boredom”, so we assign the label.
But what you’re feeling isn’t boredom, it’s despair.
Despair is like depression, but restless.
A low-grade, pernicious kind of despair that weaves itself into daily life so insidiously that you don’t even notice it. It’s despair at our own lack of agency in all this, suddenly thrown into sharp relief. Despair at the reaching and unpredictable consequences of the actions and inaction of others. Despair at the rising tide of scary numbers, and the struggle to keep seeing them as individuals instead of sterile statistics.
Despair is like depression, but restless. By the time it’s taken hold, you’re busy calling it “boredom” and wondering why the usual remedies aren’t working.
Luckily, despair can be extinguished.
Lack of Control is Not Lack of Influence
We can fight boredom with activity.
Boredom has boundaries; it can be overcome by doing things that bring us fulfilment and joy. Despair doesn’t work this way — it’s a bottomless pit. No matter how much you pour into it, it will always be empty.
Despair’s secret weapon is convincing us that nothing we do matters.
It pretends that because we cannot control things, we cannot influence them either. That because our influence over global events is insignificant, our influence over all things must also be insignificant. It paralyzes us with the idea that because the problem is vast, our responsibility to it is as well.
None of this is true.
The key to defeating despair is to stop looking at the world the way it wants you to. Reframe the problem and redirect your energy toward things you can control, influence, and improve—on a scale that’s reasonable.
Sow the Seeds of Happiness
We can’t all be nurses, doctors, and key agents on the frontlines of this battle, but we still have a role to play. We should not be ashamed to deploy whatever skills we have in the service of making ourselves and those around us feel better in difficult times.
We can start small by seeking the level of mindfulness required to see past the despair. We must step back, recognize it for what it is, and let it go. Easier said than done, but you don’t have to go from zero to a hundred in a day. Start slow, be patient, and remember that there’s no shame or guilt in this process, because we’re all grappling with the same demon.
I found that a simple meditation practise gave me the tools to break out of that negative frame of mind and set it aside. Once you manage to see despair as a choice—as an optional perspective instead of the only one—it becomes easier and easier to repeat the exercise.
Then, we can expand our view to encompass our individual spheres of influence: family, friends, neighbourhood, even strangers on the internet.
When I think of the things that have made me smile over the past few weeks, it’s been watching people take this step and turn their nervous energy into fuel for jokes, personal projects, acts of kindness, and moments of connection.
They weren’t doing it for my sake, these strangers. But their random expressions of creativity, warmth, humour, and humanity reached across the internet and improved my day too, even if just a little. And they inspire me to use whatever skills I have to pay it forward.
You might draw comfort from different things than I do, but if you encounter these sorts of experiences, remember to show the person that it made a difference. An encouraging like or a comment can go a long way. They were probably plagued by uncertainty and doubt even as they made the decision to share, and your reaction is a reminder to them that their decision made a difference to someone.
Become a beacon of positivity for those around you and you’ll be reminded of just how much influence you truly have. Genuine happiness is more infectious than any disease.
Time is a Container for Potential
Eventually, you’ll find that what you have on your hands is no longer the spiralling, guilt-ridden miasma of despair. It’s simply time, neutral and full of potential.
Far from being a waste, having spare time is the prerequisite for any progress we make in life. You can choose to fill it with activity, or use it as a rare and valuable opportunity for introspection. Start a meditation practise, try to form a journaling habit again, learn to sit with yourself. Get over your fear of quiet, of stillness, of solitude.
When you’re ready to get moving, you’ll find that all your boredom remedies work again because you now understand that the things you do have meaning and reach.
So bake that sourdough, tend your garden, craft your beautiful Animal Crossing island, post your hopeful article on Medium. And remember to share your progress with those around you now and then.
We’ll get through this together, one hesitant smile at a time.