Boredom, Vaccine Fatigue, Mental Health and COVID: Enhancing Morale/Finding Meaning

The Issue

We can be forgiven for asking if this pandemic will ever end. After a year of intermittent lockdowns, restricted access to businesses, schools and stay-at-home orders, many of us are bored, restless, and stir crazy. What exactly do mental health and infectious disease specialists say about our vaccine fatigue, which includes boredom? 

This blog addresses three questions:

  1. How is it possible for the pandemic to be simultaneously boring and yet perilously fatal?
  2. In what ways are boredom, apathy, and depression different, one from another?
  3. What if any are the emotional health benefits, challenges and realities of the boredom with which we view life under the pandemic?

Media and Personal Obsession with the Virus


Millions of us are restricted to our homes trying to avoid close, continuous contact with others. Even white-collar professionals who are lucky enough to be able to work from home are stuck in the same place all day, every day.  The current situation could make many of us feel a lot of things—including frustrated, angry, stir crazy, or distressed. Limitless digital content, even if unfulfilling, can only theoretically keep us occupied.  

The pandemic itself is perversely riveting. Our daily and nightly news focuses obsessively on danger and death to the point that no other news events are seemingly worthy of treatment. Despite escapist segments like movies or cooking shows, this is likely one of the scariest periods that any of us will ever live through. Why, then, has this dangerous, potentially lethal, pandemic triggered such a perverse, pervasive sense of boredom? According to psychologists James Danckert and John Eastwood, the answer may likely be because it has stripped us of our agency. In a new book, Out of My Skull, they argue that boredom is more than just the feeling we get when our minds are insufficiently stimulated. It’s a sign that our capacity to act as authors of our own lives has been challenged or constricted.

Pandemic boredom is not a single experience, but rather layers of experiences that together can feel personally overwhelming. Specialists in the mental health sciences identify the following characteristics of boredom:

  • it is a universal, unavoidable and timeless phenomenon
  • it is more likely to affect young men, unmarried people and those with lower income
  • it signals awareness of a need for change in behaviour
  • according to social psychologists, 67 per cent of American men and 25 per cent of women will inflict pain on themselves to avoid boredom
  • some bored people (with higher left-frontal lobe of brain activity) are better than others at sitting alone with their thoughts. They stimulate themselves by thinking about other things while those with activity in the right-frontal lobe relate to more negative emotional processing and anxiety
  • never-bored people struggle too.

In many ways, we are bored with being bored, which is why we might see it as depression. But this indescribable boredom asks us important questions about the ways we think about this feeling of life being on pause.  Boredom deserves to be appreciated as a complex state of mind, one fraught with negatives and positives:

Negatives of Boredom Positives of Boredom
May well constitute a real, yet underappreciated, public health threat Can alert you to your lack of progress in meeting certain goals
Can lead or tempt you to attempt risky infection-enhancing behaviour (such as  ignoring social distancing guidelines, not wearing a mask) Can tempt or encourage you to start a new business or hobby
Can stunt creativity with ensuing psychological harms (passivity, depression, and ennui) Can motivate us to seek out stimulation and find more and deeper meaning in our lives
Being bored means dis-ease (lack of ease) in dealing with people and situations Being bored means you are healthy, free of symptoms of disease and hopefully happily infection-free
Can trigger conditions leading to anti-social or self-harming behaviour in some people (over-eating, becoming aggressive, self-mutilation) May help with goal-setting and stimulate creative problem-solving
People’s—and animals’—boredom levels increase when they are deluged with too many options at once Can trigger exploration, self-discovery, and resilient behaviour

   Source: adapted from  Eric Cortellessa, Washington Monthly and other sources

Shaping Your Sense of Well-Being and Your Future

While pandemics breed boredom for many, no matter how fatigued we are, psychologists say, understanding boredom can help most anyone survive the current pandemic. Without it, human beings would remain in known environments and not explore new situations. But how can anyone explore boundaries when a deadly virus has us distanced from other humans? According to certain behavioural psychologists, the key is recognizing how boredom-prone you are, and tapping other internal sources. Things such as:

  • (a) self-control,
  • (b) resilience;
  • (c) creativity;
  • (d) meditation; and/or
  • (e) willpower.

In mental health terms, the pandemic has achieved many things. It has:

  • (a) accentuated the role of boredom in our lives;
  • (b) forced us to confront its meaning;
  • (c) deepened our appreciation of our immediate circle of family and friends;
  • (d) shown that we all need to be connected, to help us not feel lonely or bored; and
  • (e) demonstrated that the digital revolution has done little to assuage boredom. Even with smartphones, social media, laptops, and other ubiquitous technology, we’re still not satisfied. Unlimited digital content has actually left many of us oversaturated.

Depressed versus bored:  During the pandemic “boredom” has become a code word for any experience in which people feel disconnected, when life appears meaningless or uninteresting. Psychiatrists point to a distinction between an acute sense of boredom and the clinical diagnosis of depression. While being bored challenges our sense of self, the experience does not carry the serious impairments that define clinical depression. The inability to distinguish between boredom and depression points to a larger reality and problem. It has become harder to tell the difference between experiencing a lack of interest and an inability to experience interest. With COVID-boredom, our lack of interest is exaggerated to the point where daily life feels like an existential malaise that seems endless.

Two paths to boredom: Researchers 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 Before COVID Times, said social psychologist Erin Westgate of the University of Florida in Gainesville. In addition to a deadly pandemic that has brought city shutdowns and remote schooling, there have been civil rights protests, political turbulence, a crippling recession, and myriad other stressors both big and small. Those disturbances hobble our ability to stay mentally sharp, and can lead to dullness. When boredom is defined this way, the busyness of, say, parents of young children provides little protection against feeling blah. Certain researchers have documented that both under-stimulation and over-stimulation can short-circuit one’s ability to pay attention.

Situational versus existential boredom:  Not all boredom is the same. In 2011, Joseph Epstein wrote in Commentary that there were two types, situational and existential: “Situational boredom is caused by the temporary tedium everyone at one time or another encounters: the dull sermon, the longueur-laden novel, the pompous gent extolling his prowess at the used-tire business.” This is the kind of boredom that house cleaning and playlist making can resolve. “Existential boredom,” by contrast, “is thought to be the result of existence itself, caused by modern culture and therefore inescapable.” This experience—which is similar to what the French call ennui—is harder to address. Making your life more exciting and fulfilling can require some soul searching, and likely some trial and error. 

Boredom versus apathy: Boredom on any scale—whether it’s from a pointless meeting or an inability to find excitement in your life—stems from a crisis of agency. Psychologically, human beings have a need to be both engaged and effective. When we’re neither, we become restless and irritated. Frustration is a symptom of our having failed to take charge. That’s what makes boredom distinct from apathy—which is when we simply don’t care. People only become bored, said Danckert and Eastwood, because they care. “We are tormented precisely because of our desire for something satisfying to do, and we are bored precisely because that urgent desire goes unsatisfied.” 

Dimensions of Life under the Threat of COVID

Like the layers of stress and worry that can be felt throughout the world as the pandemic lasts longer and longer, our COVID fatigue is also layered. Here are some of the interesting thoughts and research from mental health professionals on elements of pandemic fatigue:

Media over-saturation: Watching the news, which in times of crisis can border on compulsion, has become monotonous. We are presented with the same basic series of facts about the virus, the same fears and concerns, repeated over and over with only minor differences. This helps explain why fake news and conspiracy theories have thrived. They have become “more psychologically pleasing and convenient [than reality]” and make “simpler sense than a complex phenomenon.” Having to live the reality of life under COVID-19 is proving both challenging and baffling.

Bingeing behaviour:  Being bored does not appear to stop people from engaging in apparently pointless activities, but instead pushes us to take them on more and more. To solve the problem of our boredom, we add layers to the things we are already doing. If bingeing a TV program feels pointless, some of us start bingeing several programs simultaneously. We engage in more—more watching, more buying, more rethinking our lives—to hyper-stimulate ourselves. But the ironic effect of these added activities often seems to be more boredom.

Self- destructive behaviour:  Pandemic fatigue can variously manifest as feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, frustration, anger and boredom. Seeing boredom on that list worries those professionals who study the phenomenon. “Usually boredom tells you that you should do something else,” said sports psychologist Wanja Wolff of the University of Konstanz in Germany. “In the context of a pandemic that might not be the best thing.” 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 (as high as 25%) appear to be at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Boredom is a privilege and a pain: Certainly, simply being bored is a privilege for many. It means they’re infection free and out of an ICU unit. As the pandemic rages on, however, hundreds of thousands of front-line workers are still reporting to work in grocery stores, restaurants, and factories — not to mention hospitals, ambulance services, and doctor’s offices — alert to the virus as a constant threat. Firefighters, police officers, teachers, correctional officers, and others are, too. For them, the chance to be bored might be a dream. As noted in EthicScan blog, What We May Never Recover From: COVID-Occupational Moral Injury (March 15), a growing number of them face intolerable working conditions that cause them to suffer from moral distress to the point it becomes moral injury.

A non-recoverable sense of loss: After almost a year of pandemic restrictions, many social and cultural distractions meant to occupy and entertain us are proving inadequate. People confess they have been unable to fully binge TV programs because it felt pointless. Such activities take on increased significance as they are weighed against the loss of possible experiences we feel like we are missing out on as a result of the pandemic. It is as if we are trying to get too much meaning out of our immediate activities, in order to make up for the sense of a lost future. The pandemic has put so much of life on hold, from work and education to medical procedures and travel. Decisions are being postponed, plans put off as we wait for the moment we can un-pause our lives.

Loss of agency: Agency refers to the sense that you can take action to achieve specific goals. Boredom is more than just the feeling we get when our minds are insufficiently stimulated. It’s a sign that our capacity to act as authors of our own lives has been challenged or constricted. In several social networks curated on Zoom, some risk-taking women say they feel the pandemic has robbed them of their agency. Many member/friends don’t want to leave, so they kept their Zoom room open, no matter the day or time. They can join and find up to 20 friends at work or chilling together, keeping boredom at bay, even if some are asleep.

Losing both focus and meaning:  Many of our lives have come unraveled. Research by personality and social psychologist Samantha Heintzelman of Rutgers University-Newark 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,” she 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. When people lose both focus and meaning in their lives, this form of boredom is “doubly bad,” researcher Westgate has said. “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. But if something is meaningless and you can’t pay attention, you’re like double bored.”

Conclusion

Boredom need not bring us down. Pandemic fatigue is something we shouldn’t fight so much as listen to. Mental health professionals and psychological researchers believe it can be used to our benefit, including finding resilience, enhancing morale and adding mature meaning and purpose to life while coping with the pandemic.

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Further Reading

Healthy Debate – The endless ‘existential crisis’: Finding meaning in the midst of COVID boredom:
https://healthydebate.ca/2021/03/topic/covid-boredom/

EthicScan Blog – Voluntary Isolation: Economic vs Spiritual Trial:
https://ethicscan.ca/blog/2020/04/11/voluntary-isolation-economic-vs-spiritual-trial/

WebMD – Making Boredom Help You Thrive During COVID-19:
https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20201228/making-boredom-help-you-thrive-during-covid-19

EthicScan Blog – Planning for Recovery: Part Three: Social Distancing and Renewal:
https://ethicscan.ca/blog/2020/07/12/recovery-choice-planning-part-three-social-distancing/

Medical Xpress – Depressed or bored? How COVID-boredom intensifies the fear of missing out:
https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-02-depressed-covid-boredom.html

ScienceNew – In the social distancing era, boredom may pose a public health threat:
https://www.sciencenews.org/article/social-distancing-boredom-covid-19-public-health-pandemic

EthicScan Blog – Family Pressure Cooker:
https://ethicscan.ca/blog/2020/05/23/family-pressure-cooker/

CNET – Why you should embrace the quarantine boredom: The alternative is far worse:
https://www.cnet.com/health/why-you-should-embrace-the-quarantine-boredom-the-alternative-is-far-worse/

EthicScan Blog – Screen Time and Home Schooling:
https://ethicscan.ca/blog/2020/04/29/screen-time-and-home-schooling/

Washington Monthly – The Benefits of Boredom: COVID-19 is going to last a long while. Here’s the psychology behind making the best of it:
https://washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/july-august-2020/the-benefits-of-boredom/

EthicScan Blog – What We May Never Recover From: COVID Occupational Moral Injury:
https://ethicscan.ca/blog/2021/03/15/what-we-may-never-recover-from-covid-occupational-moral-injury/

David Nitkin
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