How to cope with social isolation and ’empty time’ during the pandemic.
Last week we published our study led by Joanna Witowska from the University of Warsaw, Poland, on how the ability to self-regulate helps counter the effects of boredom while waiting alone in a room. The study was conducted in 2018, but it took us a year to get it published. It is a coincidence that just now, when so many people are living in isolation because of the pandemic, our research finally went to print.
In a previous Psychology Today post, “The Case of Boredom: Enduring Empty Time,” I argued that to be bored means to be bored with myself, “I cannot stand the presence of myself at this moment; I would prefer to be distracted from myself.” Therein lies the solution to boredom. It is all about self-regulation. Successful self-regulation involves several components, but in essence, it means that we are able to cope with unpleasant feelings that we have in a given situation that is not under our control. Social isolation is such a situation. We have no direct physical contact with our friends and colleagues from work. We cannot distract ourselves in the local pub or cinema. What can we do?
A quick summary of our study. What did we do and what did we find? Of course, we could not isolate people for several weeks. We had 99 people wait alone in an empty room for 7.5 minutes and afterward asked them to report their impressions regarding the experienced time and their emotional reactions to the situation. As expected, boredom was associated with the feeling of time passing slowly. Time stretched when people felt bored. We also were interested in individual differences related to self-control. Here, we found clear evidence that people who were more able to emotionally self-regulate in daily life, as assessed with a questionnaire, were less aware of time during the waiting situation and had lower levels of boredom.
What does self-control mean? We know the escape routes we can take to counteract boredom: we switch on the TV, surf the web, listen to our favorite music, or read a book. That is instrumental in coping with a situation, which is important in times of a pandemic. In essence, it means you should get absorbed in an activity so that you are less aware of yourself and the passage of time.
However, in the waiting situation in our study, individuals had no means of distraction. We had taken away everything, the cellphone, books, anything that could be distracting, and the subjects were confined in a boring room. This requires emotional coping and cognitive restructuring. Individuals with more self-control can cope with the situation better, as they can self-regulate by briefly re-thinking the situation. For example, they could say to themselves, “We often complain that, due to our busy lives, we do not have enough time. Now, in the waiting room, just for a few minutes, I have time for myself, I can relax.” That is emotional coping.
The empty time experienced during social isolation triggers a number of emotions in many of us, such as frustration and annoyance, even anxiety and episodes of depression. Individuals with more self-control have the propensity to find solutions for themselves and their emotional reactions to a given situation.
Instrumental coping means, “Do something meaningful; find an activity that gets you going, a project with a meaningful goal.” When you have a future-oriented goal, you organize your life in little steps of activity on which you concentrate, away from your worrying self and time. Our previous research has shown that more future-oriented individuals feel that time passes more quickly in daily life.
Emotional coping means, “I can realize that this is a very special moment. There is a pause in my daily routine. I can think about what I have been doing over the last few years. Do I want to continue that way? I now have the chance to reconsider options in my life. How are my relations with other people? I can backpedal and eventually readjust my life?”
Have you ever wondered how astronauts or researchers in Antarctica spend their relative isolation over months and how they cope with frustration and boredom? Watch a fascinating talk by Anna Yusupova on the YouTube channel of the International Time Perspective Network.
Anna is a researcher at the Institute for Biomedical Problems in the Laboratory for Cognitive and Social Psychology in Moscow, Russia. She studies the effects of isolation in astronauts who have to endure many months of isolation in the international space station ISS. How do the Russian cosmonauts cope with this absolute quarantine far from earth? Nearly every minute is filled with routine activities. Empty time hardly occurs because their daily schedules are filled with so many future-oriented goals. They only have a little time for themselves between prescribed activities when they can savor the moment by looking at planet earth turning below them.
We are now all, more or less, astronauts in our confined spaces. Let’s use our time in a meaningful way and find out what we really want to do.