The endless ‘existential crisis’: Finding meaning in the midst of COVID boredom

During this pandemic, the internet has taken on the #stayathomechallenge with its usual gusto. How many times can you juggle a roll of toilet paper? What do you do when the floor is lava? Can you teach your dog to dance? It seems like people will do anything to stave off the impending boredom.

Three out of every four Americans have reported being bored stiff during the pandemic, making them more likely to ignore social distancing guidelines and even contract the coronavirus.

But being stuck in the doldrums doesn’t have to lead to danger. Boredom is a valuable state that alerts us to meaninglessness, a lack of progress toward important goals. It can motivate us to seek out stimulation and find meaning in our lives, argues philosopher Andreas Elpidorou at the University of Louisville – even when we’re stuck inside. The key, however, is to find ways to satisfy that desire while adhering to public health guidelines.

“It forces us to see that we’re having this mini existential crisis – sometimes a big one,” says Elpidorou. “But it doesn’t give us an answer.”

Young men in particular struggle with boredom and are less likely to comply with COVID-19 precautions, according to a Swiss study by Corinna Martarelli, an assistant professor in statistics at the Swiss Distance University Institute. Unmarried people and those with lower incomes are also more likely to be affected by boredom.

While memes mock the stay-at-home challenge, “It’s difficult actually to not do anything,” says Martarelli, “because boredom signals to change a behaviour.”

In fact, a study at the University of Virginia found that many participants would rather receive an electric shock than sit alone and do nothing in a room for 15 minutes, with 67 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women inflicting pain on themselves to avoid boredom.

Sammy Perone, assistant professor in the Department of Human Development at Washington State University, analyzed boredom coping mechanisms in the brain and found that some are better than others at sitting alone with their thoughts. Bored participants with activity in the left frontal lobe stimulate themselves by thinking about other things while activity in the right frontal lobe relates to more negative emotional processing and anxiety. The finding implies that people can learn to internally deal with boredom more effectively.

“We had one person in the experiment who reported mentally rehearsing Christmas songs for an upcoming concert,” Perone said in a press release. Others might make a grocery list, think about what to make for dinner or practice dance moves. These intentional acts of mind wandering may help with goal-setting and stimulate creative problem-solving.

James Kaufman, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut, suggests that small acts of daily creativity such as cooking, gardening or doing puzzles can prevent risky boredom-driven behaviours and get us through the pandemic. “So many people say they’re not creative,” says Kaufman, but “it’s not that high and mighty … anybody can be creative.”

Instead of focusing on the final product, Kaufman recommends just enjoying the process of creativity and its many psychological benefits, from personal enjoyment and stress relief to a sense of purpose and connection. Like a muscle, he sees creativity as something that becomes stronger with practice. Just start playing around with ideas, he recommends, because “if you wait for inspiration, you’ll be waiting a long time.”

A German study evaluated the effectiveness of different boredom coping strategies students use and identified three groups: reappraisers, criticizers and evaders.

  1.   Reappraisers change their perception of the situation, so these students might remind themselves how important math class is.
  2.   Criticizers try to change the situation itself, perhaps by asking the teacher for a more interesting lesson.
  3.   Evaders leave the classroom in some way – by daydreaming or maybe chatting with a classmate.

The findings suggest reappraisers are the most successful at thwarting boredom, likely because they are able to insert meaning into situations. Conversely, evaders were most bored because escape measures are often temporary.

While boredom is unavoidable, there are effective ways to manage it. Monique Aguirre, a mental health therapist and doctor of public health, suggests scheduled time can help people weather stay-at-home boredom by lining up meaningful options.

Adding structure to a pursuit creates a sense of direction and development toward a personal goal, she says.

We may be more than a year into lockdowns and restrictions but some recommendations still apply:

  1.   Clean out your closet and donate your clothes
  2.   Listen to a chapter of an audio book
  3.   Try out a new exercise video
  4.   Find a new recipe on YouTube
  5.   Facetime with an elderly relative or friend

“We’re learning to adjust,” she says, “and make the best out of it.”

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Robin Blades


Robin Blades is a Fulbright Scholar and clinical research coordinator in psychiatry at a California University. She is currently a fellow in the Dalla Lana Global Journalism program.

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