Mental health professionals are sounding alarms over pandemic-related depression and anxiety. But some experts say there is another emotion we need to take just as seriously – boredom.
While some of us are run off our feet (hello frontline workers), others are stuck at home with little more than sourdough to occupy our days.
“People trivialize boredom,” says James Danckert, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo. “As a mental health issue, it’s something we should be paying closer attention to right now.”
It’s not just that boredom is an uncomfortable emotion, says Danckert. It’s that boredom impacts our ability to pay attention, is associated with risk-taking behaviour and increases our risk for depression and anger problems.
A 2015 Dutch study showed that making people bored can drive them to eat chocolate and to self-administer electric shocks in roughly equal measure. The researchers bored 30 participants during two different sessions with an hour-long video, a common technique in boredom studies. “We use a video of two guys hanging laundry,” says Danckert.
In the first session, participants had free access to M&M candies while in the second they could freely self-administer brief electrical shocks. The researchers concluded it didn’t much matter whether the stimulation was positive (chocolate) or negative (shock). Their bored participants were willing to subject themselves to whatever stimulation was at hand to escape the emotion.
Beyond the danger to our waistlines and our general health, there may be a more immediate public health concern over boredom. A study of compliance with quarantine in Toronto during the 2003 SARS pandemic showed boredom was the greatest emotional disincentive to comply with quarantine.
Danckert and his team recently collected unpublished data showing similar outcomes in the current pandemic. Using online questionnaires, they surveyed just under 1,000 Americans between April 28 and May 2.
First, they assessed participants’ “boredom proneness” with questions about how often and how intensely they experienced boredom. Then they asked a series of questions meant to gauge to what extent they were practicing physical distancing.
The study has yet to be peer-reviewed but it found that those who were more prone to boredom were more likely to break physical distancing rules. Danckert is careful to point out that the study says nothing about whether the pandemic itself is causing more boredom “but it’s not a stretch,” he says.
In fact, he just published a study that loosely mimicked quarantine-induced boredom. It shows people are more bored in a room equipped with engaging activities (puzzles or laptops) that they are prevented from using than those in a room with nothing at all.
“Kind of like being in lockdown – you know there are things you could be doing but you’re unable,” he says.
Like Danckert, York University clinical psychologist John Eastwood was intrigued to rediscover the SARS study about bored people breaking quarantine. He was particularly interested to note that study and others suggested we needed do something about boredom before the next pandemic.
“But they didn’t really talk about what to do beyond making sure everyone had really good Internet,” says Eastwood, who runs York’s Boredom Lab.
He and his team are in the midst of collecting data they hope will suggest a way of dealing with pandemic-induced boredom. The study stems from Eastwood’s suspicion that people aren’t bored merely because they are staying home and don’t have access to their old routines.
He said it may also have to do with emotional trauma and our ability to deal with it. Previous research shows people who experience trauma or emotionally destabilizing events also experience more boredom.
“The theory is that emotions are like compass points that orient us in life,” says Eastwood. That is, they help us move toward things we value and away from things that are damaging.
“We know that people who have experienced trauma often experience emotional numbing as a consequence. Or have jumbled, mixed-up, chaotic emotions,” says Eastwood. “Difficulty dealing with emotions leaves you adrift and lacking clarity about what you value.”
The inability to identify what we value is key, he says. People who believe what they are doing is valuable and meaningful are rarely bored. But if living through a pandemic is causing emotional turmoil and we aren’t able to regulate or deal constructively with those emotions, we are likely to become bored.
Or so the theory goes. Eastwood is surveying about 400 Canadians and Americans about their levels of emotional distress from the pandemic, their ability to regulate those emotions and their boredom levels.
“The question is can we predict boredom by looking at people’s degree of experiencing difficult negative emotions and the degree to which they’re able to regulate or work with their emotions?” says Eastwood. He expects to have preliminary results in about a month.
If he is right, then the prescription for physical-distancing scofflaws is to teach them how to deal with their negative emotions. That’s not part of his current research but there is a whole industry out there – cognitive therapy, meditation, exercise, medication – to help people work through emotional trauma.
Eastwood says that while boredom can be an excruciating feeling, if we leverage it to help us find meaning, we just might learn something valuable during this time.
“I hope when the lockdown ends, we’ll be able to make deliberate choices about what routines we slide back into and what routines we say, ‘Hey, I can do without that. Maybe that doesn’t speak to who I am, to my values,’ ” he says.
*James Danckert and John Eastwood’s new book, Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, was published in June 2020.