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Three Years Among the Comanches is an amazing book. I was just reading it tonight. The story is a first-hand account, published in 1859 by Nelson Lee, who was captured by the Comanches on his way from Texas to California.
The part I read tonight was how two of his companions died. Most of the people he was traveling with were killed on the spot, but four were taken prisoner (Lee and three other men). One day, all four of the prisoners were tied to poles, facing each other. Two prisoners were side by side, and Lee and another prisoner were tied up facing the first two, who were then slowly tortured for two hours.
It was too painful to watch their friends suffering like that, so Lee and the other prisoner-witness tried to look away, but the Comanches forced them to watch as one by one, warriors came up to the two tortured prisoners to slash them with an arrowhead or take a small piece of their scalp. They sliced deep enough to bleed but not enough to kill the prisoners. One warrior after another came up and sliced in a different place. The prisoners screamed, moaned, begged, and bled for two hours. Finally they were put out of their misery with a hatchet through the head.
As I was reading this horrible, graphic account by someone who witnessed it first hand, I was struck by the pettiness of my own problems. I said out loud, "I think I have problems!" The comparison made me feel that my unhappiness at my own little problems was pathetic.
And it occurred to me that this perspective is true. It is not only true, but it is valuable. Pessimism is a violation of your own integrity, and the perspective here — that things could almost always be a lot worse — is the honest truth and a powerful insight.
The truth is, your circumstances are only really bad in comparison to something better. And the truth is, you have a choice about what you compare your circumstances to. If you choose to always compare your circumstances to something more ideal, it will prevent you from being as happy as you could be or as satisfied with your life as you could be. Read more about that.
And think about this: Any unhappiness caused that way is directly attributable to your deliberate refusal to see an obvious truth: That things could be worse. For many people, now and in the past, it is a plain fact that things have been much MUCH worse.
If you ever want a reality-check, remember those tortured prisoners. Compared to circumstances like that, your problems are petty. In fact, compared to circumstances like that, your problems probably seem laughable.
It's also true that you would like better circumstance. But if you're going to tell the truth, tell the whole truth, and that includes the facts that puts your problems in perspective.