Recent research has identified free time and boredom as contributors to deteriorating mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an April 27 poll by the Angus Reid Institute, half of Canadians reported a worsening of their mental health, with 1 in 10 reporting a significant worsening. The same study found that a significant portion (3 in 10) of respondents reported increased boredom. Separately, a study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) and the polling firm Nanos found that half of respondents attributed their increase in alcohol consumption to a lack of a regular schedule (free time) and boredom.
Numerous health care experts interviewed in the media have talked about free time and boredom. In an April CTV interview, psychologist Vivien Lee recommended that people struggling with their mental health “try to focus on what you can do. What is in your control day by day.” According to Lee, setting a new daily routine and sticking to it is key for our mental health. Our routines should set time aside for physical activity, relaxation, friends and family; establish a set sleep schedule; and set limits on television and social media.
Unfortunately, such advice does not bring people any closer to understanding why free time and boredom are problems in the first place. As John Eastwood, Principal Investigator at York University’s Boredom Lab put it, “Boredom is a crisis of agency … telling a bored person to go read a book or watch a movie is like telling a drowning person to swim to shore. If they could, they would” (cited in Waters, 2020, para. 12). In this blog article, I examine the research on boredom as an emotion, as a response to meaninglessness, the modern problem of free time, and two of Frankl’s boredom-relevant concepts: existential vacuum and noö-dynamics.
Boredom is Not a Trivial Emotion
The relative lack of psychological research on boredom in comparison to other emotions is surprising, given how commonly we experience it and its negative impact on mental health. A US study found that 91 percent of youth in the United States reported feeling frequently bored (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 2003). Boredom is often perceived as harmless. Research by Eastwood and his colleagues (2012) found that many people consider boredom “fairly trivial and [a] temporary discomfort that can be alleviated by a simple change in circumstances,” such as changing one’s daily routine (p. 482). As the authors pointed out, however, chronic boredom can have significant adverse consequences, including reduced life expectancy (Britton & Shipley, 2010), depression and anxiety (LePera, 2011; Sommers & Vodanovich, 2000; Vodanovich et al, 1991), emotional eating (Crockett et al., 2015; Koball et al., 2012), problem gambling (Blaszczynski et al., 1990; Mercer & Eastwood, 2010) and substance use (Iso-Ahola & Crowley, 1991). Boredom at work is a significant contributor to workplace accidents (Fisher, 1993).
Boredom as a Response to a Life That Lacks Meaning and Purpose
In a recent Wired magazine article, boredom researcher Erin Westgate suggested that boredom is a particularly problematic emotion during the COVID-19 pandemic because those affected by it might ignore shelter-in-place orders. Dr. Westgate also questions the standard advice of finding a good book, movie, or puzzle to erase boredom: “Boredom is a completely natural reaction to not being meaningfully engaged in the world” (Waters, 2020, para. 5). According to Westgate, boredom is a function of an inability to focus on—and find meaning in—a given task. Boredom as an emotion may be spiking during the current pandemic because (a) many of the things that gave life meaning pre-pandemic—e.g., friends, work, going to our favourite coffee shop—may be currently off limits, and (b) the anxiety of our uncertain world may be hampering our ability to focus on tasks.
Other researchers have found that boredom is associated with anxiety (Eastwood et al., 2012; Fahlman et al., 2009) and negatively correlated with meaning and purpose (Frankl, 1946/1984; MacDonald & Holland, 2002; Maddi, 1970; Melton & Schulenberg, 2007; Watt & Vodanovich, 1999; Wink & Donahue, 1997). Maddi (1970) used the term existential sickness in reference to the boredom that one experiences due to a perceived meaninglessness in life and lack of agency.
The Problem of Free Time
Perhaps the most influential existential thinker on the topic of boredom and meaninglessness is Viktor Frankl (1946/1984), author of Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl identified a downside to the growing prosperity and technological advance following the end of World War II. Referring to his patients at his psychotherapy practice in Vienna, Frankl said that many of them had no idea how to spend their newly-acquired free time. Rather than contributing to greater mental health, free time was having the opposite effect. Frankl used the term Sunday neurosis to describe a “kind of depression that afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over” (p. 129). While some of Frankl’s patients experienced depression, others became aggressive with their family members, or engaged in addictive behaviours such as drinking and gambling. The problem of too much leisure, Frankl noted, was particularly acute among his patients in retirement.
If technological advance was contributing to mental health problems post-WWII, it is likely having the same effect in the digital age. Recent news stories suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to a collective Sunday neurosis and the problems of addiction and aggression that Frankl identified as its symptoms. Since March, 2020, when shelter-in-place orders were first issued, government officials across North America have reported dramatic increases in alcohol consumption and domestic violence. Clearly, the problem of free time and its potentially negative impact on mental health is not a new problem, although the pandemic has certainly brought the problem to light.
Frankl’s Existential Vacuum and Noö-Dynamics
Frankl considered boredom symptomatic of an existential vacuum, which arises when individuals are frequently frustrated in their attempts to live personally meaningful lives. Frankl’s metaphor of a vacuum refers to the human tendency to fill the void left by a meaningless life with an endless array of distractions—e.g., smartphones, television, junk food, and mood-altering substances. The COVID-19 polling cited above suggests, however, that such distractions can only go so far to ward off boredom, particularly when major distractions—e.g., for men, the absence of televised sports—are no longer available. Frankl (1946/1984) argued that “a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish” was a necessary part of human life (p. 127). Frankl referred to this tension as noö-dynamics and distinguished between the tension arising out of our efforts to fulfill our human potential with our desire to achieve a tensionless state, or ‘homeostasis’. For an example of Frankl’s homeostasis, think of any television commercial showing couples lounging on a tropical beach, happy and content. Car commercials showing happy couples driving luxury vehicles is another favourite of advertisers. Vacations and material goods, however, provide only temporary satisfaction.
For Frankl, struggling and striving for a freely-chosen, life-affirming task is the real key to lasting happiness and mental health. Furthermore, Frankl’s writings suggest that domestic violence and addictions are symptoms of a deeper and larger problem of living a life that lacks meaning and purpose. Taken together, Frankl’s concepts of the existential vacuum and noö-dynamics suggest that boredom and free time are not problems to be overcome by making a daily to-do list. Perhaps the pandemic can be an opportunity to reflect on our lives, reconnect with our loved ones, and find ways to have our actions better reflect what we find meaningful in life.
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