Are You Depressed Or Bored?

There has been a lot of talk recently about how the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a mental health epidemic of depression and anxiety. 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?

Clinical depression is characterized by an inability to experience pleasure, insomnia, loss of self-esteem and suicidal thinking and behavior, 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.

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 understimulated. It is this state of restless desire to do something — anything! — without a way of achieving our goal that is the essence of boredom.

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 percent of men and 25 percent of women found being alone with their own thoughts so unpleasant that they chose negative stimulation over no stimulation.

This suggests that we have a near hysterical dread of boredom. Is it any surprise that we structure our lives to avoid it?

However, the very concept of boredom seems to be a modern invention. Our modern intolerance of boredom might even be fueling the spread of the coronavirus, as novelty seekers who have had enough of the lockdown head to bars, beaches and amusement parks.

Being bored might feel intolerable, but, unlike clinical depression, it will never seriously impair your function or kill you. It doesn’t need treatment any more than everyday unhappiness requires an antidepressant. But we can still do something about it. 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.

I do not mean to suggest that the pandemic might not cause an increase in serious mental illness. I’m simply saying that let’s not medicalize everyday stress. And let’s not dread boredom, but try to use it to our good.

from The New York Times Aug 23, 2020