In the social distancing era, boredom may pose a public health threat

Recent studies offer clues to why some people find it difficult to follow social distancing guidelines

In recent months, journalists and public health experts have bandied about the term “pandemic fatigue.” Though not clearly defined, the general gist is that people have grown tired of the pandemic and keeping apart for almost a year and running. That fatigue can manifest as feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, frustration, anger and boredom.

Seeing boredom on that list worries those who study the phenomenon. “Usually boredom tells you that you should do something else,” says sports psychologist Wanja Wolff of the University of Konstanz in Germany. “In the context of a pandemic … that might not be the best thing.”

Recently, those fears have received more traction. Two similar yet independent studies, one by Wolff and colleagues and another by a U.S.-Canadian research team, found that people who frequently feel bored are more likely than others to flout social distancing guidelines. Those boredom-prone individuals also appear to be at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Boredom, these studies suggest, may well constitute a real, yet underappreciated, public health threat.

Defining boredom

Across the Western humanities, boredom has typically been depicted as an individual failing. The 19th century German pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer defined boredom as the sensation of the emptiness of existence. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called it a “leprosy of the soul.”

But researchers studying boredom say it merits a more neutral reading. That feeling of having nothing to do — what Russian author Leo Tolstoy called “the desire for desires” — serves as a signal, a call to the body to shift gears, goes the current thinking.

“Boredom is a sign that you’re not meaningfully engaged in the world,” says social psychologist Erin Westgate of the University of Florida in Gainesville. Researchers, including Westgate, have identified two paths to boredom: a loss of focus or a loss of meaning.

Certainly, many of us have lost the focus, or mental acuity, of the Before Times, Westgate says. In addition to a deadly pandemic that has brought city shutdowns and remote schooling, there have been civil rights protests, political unrest, a crippling recession and myriad other stressors both big and small. Those disturbances, which hobble our ability to stay mentally sharp, can lead to dullness. When boredom is defined this way, the busyness of, say, parents of young children provides little protection against feeling blah. In fact, Westgate and others have found that both understimulation and overstimulation can short-circuit one’s ability to pay attention.

Meanwhile, many of our lives have come unraveled. Research by personality and social psychologist Samantha Heintzelman of Rutgers University-Newark in New Jersey shows that simple routines, like getting coffee from the same café every day or a standing lunch date with a friend, actually imbue life with meaning. “We’re in a collective loss of routine right now,” Heintzelman says. That is to say, the social distancing guidelines aimed at protecting us from a deadly disease have also stolen the seemingly little things that give life meaning (SN: 8/14/20).

When people lose both focus and meaning in their lives, this form of boredom is “doubly bad,” Westgate says. “You can be bored because something is meaningful, but you can’t pay attention because it’s too easy or too hard. You can also be bored because you can pay attention, but it’s meaningless,” she says. “But if something is meaningless and you can’t pay attention, you’re like double bored.”

Prone to the blahs

Those two new boredom studies — each including almost 1,000 North American participants — show how elevated boredom levels among those prone to the feeling may be playing out during this pandemic.

In the study by the U.S.-Canadian team, researchers sought to quantify the link between a person’s innate propensity for boredom and rule-breaking behaviors during the pandemic, such as spending fewer hours apart from others or holding a social gathering. Boredom proneness across the sample explained 25 percent of the variance in rule-breaking behaviors, the team reports in the March Personality and Individual Differences. The researchers did not find a strong relationship between rule-breaking and other factors that might influence it, such as age or gender. (Young adults and men tend to score higher on boredom than other groups.)

Sujata Gupta
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