Edward Hoffman Ph.D.

The Peak Experience

The Anti-Virus Lockdown in China May Be Leading to Mass Boredom

The impact could be harmful to mental and physical health.

Posted Jan 28, 2020

The news today from China reports that growing boredom is occurring among millions of residents in Wuhan and other places affected by the government's anti-virus lockdown. There's probably little harm from this situation if it lasts only a few days—but if it stretches into weeks or months, there may be serious mental health consequences for China's population.  

The English word “boredom” was actually popularized by the acclaimed British writer Charles Dickens in his 1852 novel Bleak House—which described the lethargy among London's idle rich. Although illustrious literary figures like Dickens and Mark Twain wrote about boredom in their respective countries, they described it mainly as a social condition: specifically where idleness or laziness was rampant, rather than an individual problem.    

Nearly everyone gets bored at times—and that's probably an unavoidable part of life. However, growing research from positive psychology shows that chronic boredom is a serious matter and can be harmful to well-being. Such scientific studies are confirming what literary figures and philosophers have long known. Beginning in the 1960s, humanistic psychologists led by Abraham Maslow saw boredom as arising when individuals stifle their inborn needs for new learning, developing new skills, and overcoming new challenges. In Maslow’s view, boredom recedes when we pursue personally meaningful knowledge, skills, or challenges.  

Rollo May was another co-founder of humanistic psychology. He argued that the mental state of feeling bored originates when we are very young. “If you are going to avoid boredom as an adult,” he stated, “You must learn to face it as a child…Boredom has the potential to pull you into your own imagination. You must learn to be alone, to use your imagination on a deeper level.” In Rollo May’s view, the failure to cope effectively with boredom during childhood has important consequences for our adult happiness and satisfaction with life.

Today, considerable scientific evidence indicates that chronic boredom contributes to many types of addictive behaviors—ranging from alcoholism and drug abuse to excessive gambling and compulsive over-eating. For example, a seminal study in the U.K. by Dr. Glenn Wilson found that boredom was a major cause of over-eating, especially among women.

More recently, an experimental study led by Dr. Remco Havermans at Maastricht University in Holland showed that people obliged to watch a monotonous 60-minute film segment ate approximately twice as many chocolate candies as those who watched an interesting documentary. The researchers concluded that “Boredom is a powerful emotional state motivating food consumption.” 

Pathological or problem gambling is also linked to boredom. In an influential Australian study, a team led by Dr. Alex Blaszcynski found that people who were receiving treatment for uncontrollable gambling urges and gambling behavior scored significantly higher on boredom proneness (as well as depression) compared to a control group. On the basis of such studies, Blaszsynski and his colleagues suggest that several distinct personality types are likely to develop difficulties involving gambling, especially those who are easily bored. 

Much of the health research on the dangers of boredom has focused on adolescents. A seminal study led by Dr. Seppo Iso-Ahola at the University of Maryland found that teenage substance abusers were significantly more bored with leisure activities than teens who were not substance abusers. According to a 2003 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse in the USA, teenagers who reported that they were frequently bored increased their likelihood of substance abuse by 50% compared to those who said they were rarely or never bored.

Studies in countries as different from the USA as South Africa and the U.K. have likewise found a strong link between boredom and teenage substance abuse. In a survey of over 1,000 adolescents, a British charity found that nearly 10% of 16- and 17-year-olds drank alcohol at least weekly simply because they were bored, and 29% reported that they had imbibed at least once due to boredom. In a study involving over 1,000 South African adolescents, leisure boredom (measured by such survey items as “My free time is boring” significantly predicted the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana during the previous four weeks.  

Recent studies in China have explored boredom among college students. A team led by Huang Shi-Hua at Guangzhou University found that boredom included such factors as monotony and loneliness. Meanwhile, Meng Qingxin at Jiamusi University found that boredom proneness significantly predicted overeating among university students.  

The evidence is clear that boredom is harmful to our mental and physical health.