Questions for Jürgen Bengel

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Prof. Dr Dr Jürgen Bengel is the leader of Project G5: “Otium and Illness: Leisure Time and Reorientation in Times of Resignation and Loss”.

“Places of Otium – Worldwide”: In your psychology project about otium and illness, you’re looking at chronically ill patients, the limitations they experience, and their resulting free time. What is the basic premise of your project and where does otium come into play?

Prof. Dr. Dr. Bengel

Jürgen Bengel: Our jumping-off point is that people who are suffering from a chronic illness, despite the burden, often talk about a newfound freedom – and we even have empirical evidence that attests to this. While they’re sick, they can’t or don’t have to work, but they report that they feel like this time was still productive or valuable for them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they accomplished something positive. Some of them report that they spent their newly imposed downtime thinking about their illness and how it arose, or about the next steps in their lives. Or they looked hard at decisions they had made regarding their future, from which they reoriented their lives. Many also report some positive experiences from their episodes of illness. The question we’re asking ourselves in this project is: can this be called otium? What is the relationship between otium and the experiences of downtime?

“Places of Otium – Worldwide”: Is otium a concept that’s generally known in psychology? Can you work with this term in other contexts?

Jürgen Bengel: No, the concept of otium doesn’t have a tradition in psychology. However, many different psychological concepts do exhibit some similarities to otium, such as boredom, flow and mindfulness, self-determination and self-realisation. These concepts are discussed in psychology. There is one more concept that we can consider alongside otium, especially in the context of very debilitating experiences such as chronic illness, and which describes equivalent or similar positive experiences: post-traumatic growth. The theory was developed through working with people who had experienced serious trauma and who, after the crisis, reported that they were open to new, positive experiences, e.g. with the people around them. They were able to redefine their relationships with others in a new and deeper way, and they could also deal positively with the extra time they gained. Ultimately they lived more intensely.

“Places of Otium – Worldwide”: “Places of Otium – Worldwide” is all about otiose spaces. Can you say anything about whether there are specific spaces that are particularly conducive to the experiences you have described? I’m thinking of waiting rooms or treatment rooms or places like that. Does the room play a role in the positive experiences that chronically ill patients can have?

Jürgen Bengel: The patients in our study reported that concrete, physical spaces do indeed have an effect on their experience. Some have described the art therapy room as a “creative space” that provides inspiration and new ways to keep occupied that they’d never considered before. However, concrete, physical spaces are not the focus of this project. By “Freiraum”, we mean subjectively perceived periods of time that arise due to illness, which are or must be experienced and structured in a specific way. Our subjects did not necessarily associate these with physical places.

“Places of Otium – Worldwide”: In your project, what role does the often difficult relationship between loneliness and participation in society play? Illness often causes one to drop out of their daily routine. Is this also one of the reasons for all that downtime?

Jürgen Bengel: Many chronically ill patients feel debilitated, regardless of their illness type. The reason could be a stigma attached to their disease or the feeling of social isolation, things that are not actually caused by the disease or the patient themselves. This could stem from certain insecurities on the part of the patient, or also on the part of those perpetuating the stigmatization or isolation. Many people do not know how to behave towards someone who is chronically ill. Chronic illnesses and also handicaps frequently come with a certain risk, ranging from a decrease of social contact all the way to total social isolation. The patients’ stories illustrate that especially those who struggle with an “invisible condition”, such as pain, report a lack of understanding on the part of others, and encounter difficulties with communicating their discomfort.

The website krankheitserfahrungen.de collects the experiences of those affected by illnesses.

On the other hand, these situations can also lead the patient to reflect or dwell on things. Thoughts arise like, “Why isn’t this person answering their phone?” This actually spurs some patients into action. They cannot just passively wait until someone contacts them. Being forced to take action in this way is retrospectively often evaluated as a positive experience. At the same time, it’s a starting point for therapeutic healing. Their therapist may tell them pointedly, “You are at risk of isolating yourself socially, so do something about it. Help your loved ones learn how to treat you”.

Being sick thus creates the opportunity to tell your loved ones more directly than usual what you want or need, thereby reducing uncertainty on both sides. Without sounding too critical, I don’t think that otium can produce such positive effects on its own, but it is an innovative perspective from which to examine the experiences of chronically ill patients. Work on my project is of course not yet finished, so I can only say all of this with some reservation.

“Places of Otium – Worldwide”: So one more question on this forced free time that can arise due to illness. Have you already examined how patients fill this time?

Jürgen Bengel: One important finding is that patients do not initially focus on orienting their lives in new directions or having positive experiences during this new downtime. As I mentioned earlier, many report struggling to come to terms with their disease and spend time reflecting on its possible causes. They also often mention feeling severely disoriented in their life as a whole. They talk about having lost their place in the world, that they’re “searching for something”, or that they want to “find something new”. Based on this, they often perceive their disease as a turning point in their life and refer to it as the basis for any far-reaching decisions they’ve made regarding their future. They report looking for a different job or (re)discovering employment opportunities that allow them to take time away and feel personally fulfilled. They take a more decisive role in structuring their lives and their time, they’re aware of when they need to take a time out, and they dedicate themselves to activities that are important to them on a personal level. But we don’t yet have detailed results on the effects of physical spaces on these experiences.

However, our findings to date support the theoretical assumption that time spent in a waiting room allows one to let their thoughts wander or come up with ideas that wouldn’t normally occur to them in everyday life. This can also lead to a reorientation in thinking – not only of one’s reflections on their illness, but also on their life as a whole. The hypothesis that many people experience their illness as a crisis, a crossroads or an opportunity for reorientation also seems to be confirmed. How this manifests itself greatly depends on a patient’s individual life, but also on the context framing the reactions of their friends, partners and relatives, and not least on the illness itself, which of course comes with physical or psychological restrictions. Someone who is depressed simply has fewer opportunities open to them; they’re less driven and see the future in a more negative light. On the other hand, a cancer patient waiting on a successful treatment outcome might say, “I can do anything, I am not physically restricted”. They can use this downtime where they’re working less to reorient themselves, and do the things they’ve always wanted to do – especially while keeping in mind that their illness could get worse in the foreseeable future, rendering certain activities no longer physically possible.

What is important from my perspective is to observe how for those who experience otium, it triggers an internal process of reflection, and as a result, and based on their individual lives, it becomes possible for them to fill their involuntary downtime or to create it in the first place.

“Places of Otium – Worldwide”: Thank you very much for doing this interview with us, Mr Bengel.

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