There has been a lot of talk recently about how the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a mental health epidemic of depression and anxiety.
That the pandemic has amped up our stress levels is certainly true. Indeed, there have been a few highly publicised surveys showing that levels of general psychological distress are on the rise. But I worry that calling this a wave of clinically significant depression or anxiety might be premature. What if we’re just bored out of our minds?
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Many of my patients who have struggled with depression and anxiety have, surprisingly, not experienced flare-ups of their psychiatric illnesses over the course of the past few months. They do, however, say that they feel bored and frustrated. Lots of friends and colleagues, too, say that life has taken on a stultifying quality of sameness.
The truth is that we don’t know yet whether what we’re seeing in these surveys will bloom into a full-fledged mental health epidemic. The surveys are, after all, quick snapshots of how we feel during a relatively brief period in time. Their results need to be corroborated by follow-up studies.
Clinical depression and boredom
And to be sure, little of what we’re experiencing now is pleasant. But it’s worth remembering that boredom is a normal emotional state that we shouldn’t conflate with a serious illness like depression. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t address it.
Clinical depression is characterised by an inability to experience pleasure, insomnia, loss of self-esteem and suicidal thinking and behaviour, among other symptoms. In boredom, the capacity for pleasure is totally intact, but it is thwarted by an internal or external obstacle — like being quarantined. (Boredom also produces none of the other symptoms of depression.)
Being bored might feel intolerable, but, unlike clinical depression, it will never seriously impair your function or kill you.
While boredom isn’t depression, the mass experience of boredom isn’t something frivolous. In fact, boredom is an aversive and nearly universal psychological experience that can lead to trouble, which makes it worthy of our attention.
If you wanted to design an experiment to bring about boredom, you couldn’t do better than the pandemic. Cooped up in our homes and apartments, we’ve been stripped of our everyday routine and structure. And without distractions, we are left feeling under-stimulated. It is this state of restless desire to do something — anything! — without a way of achieving our goal (if we even know what it is) that is the essence of boredom.
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People will go to remarkable lengths to escape these feelings. Consider the following experiment: Researchers asked a group of people to spend just 15 minutes in a room and instructed them to entertain themselves with their own thoughts. They were also given the opportunity to self-administer a negative stimulus in the form of a small electric shock. Strikingly, 67 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women found being alone with their own thoughts so unpleasant that they chose negative stimulation over no stimulation.
This suggests that self-reflection can be intrinsically aversive and that we have a near hysterical dread of boredom. Is it any surprise that we structure our lives to avoid it?
It was only with the rise of consumer culture in the 20th century that people were promised nearly continuous excitement; boredom was the inevitable consequence of such unrealistic expectations.
Apparently, this wasn’t always so. The very concept of boredom seems to be a modern invention. As Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt wrote recently in Salon, the word boredom did not enter the lexicon until the mid-19th century. Before that, tedium was an expected part of life. It was only with the rise of consumer culture in the 20th century that people were promised nearly continuous excitement; boredom was the inevitable consequence of such unrealistic expectations.
Fernandez and Matt posit that our modern intolerance of boredom might even be fuelling the spread of the coronavirus, as novelty seekers who have had enough of the lockdown head to bars, beaches and amusement parks.
The fact is that humans crave, to a varying degree, stimulation, and a quarantine effectively prevents us from getting very much of it. Those who are more novelty and sensation seeking, like teens, are particularly prone to boredom. So are people who use lots of recreational drugs, because at baseline, they are walking around in an under-stimulated state in which the everyday world feels uninteresting.
Let’s not dread boredom
Being bored might feel intolerable, but, unlike clinical depression, it will never seriously impair your function or kill you. While depression calls for treatment, boredom is a normal state. It doesn’t need medical treatment any more than everyday unhappiness requires an antidepressant.
But we can still do something about it. We can, perhaps, even take advantage of it. Sure, boredom is a signal that we’re under-aroused, but if we sit long enough with our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, boredom could provide us with an opportunity to rethink whether we are spending our lives in a way that is rewarding and meaningful to us. What things might we change to make life — and ourselves — more interesting?
I do not mean to suggest that the pandemic might not cause an increase in serious mental illness; that’s certainly possible. I’m simply saying that it’s premature to make that judgement. In the meantime, however, let’s not medicalise everyday stress. And let’s not dread boredom, but try to use it to our good.
— Richard A. Friedman is a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, and a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times.