Everybody becomes bored at some point. But when the feeling of being bored becomes chronic, science is beginning to tell us that there might be something to the old saying about being “bored to death.”
Chronic boredom has been associated in numerous studies with depression and anxiety, increased drug and alcohol abuse, overeating and obesity, and a highly increased risk of making mistakes. The mistakes alone could prove fatal, if for instance you are bored while driving your car at high speed or working with heavy machinery, but the health conditions associated with boredom above can also become life threatening.
The more often you experience boredom, the more likely you are to die early
As shocking as the heading above may seem, those were the exact findings of a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Researchers Annie Britton and Martin Shipley of University College London surveyed questionnaires that had been filled out during the years 1985-8 by more than 7,500 civil servants in London. In the questionnaires they had been asked if they felt bored at work during the previous month, and if so, how often. The researchers then tracked down medical records of the original participants in the study to find out how many of them had died. The respondents who had said that they were bored often turned out to be 2.5 more likely to have died of a heart problem than those who had reported not being bored.
The researchers point out that other variables and risk factors may have been involved, but that even so the chronic boredom may have been a cause. A commenter on their study agrees, saying, “Someone who is bored may not be motivated to eat well, exercise and have a heart-healthy lifestyle. That may make them more likely to have a cardiovascular event.” Others commented on the study by linking boredom to the suppression of anger, which can increase blood pressure and jeopardize the body’s immune system.
Additional studies performed in the UK have found that the problem doesn’t seem to be with occasional boredom, which everyone experiences, but with chronic boredom. Employees tested in one study who admitted to being bored often were far more likely to consume stimulants and alcohol, and 80% of them admitted that their boredom often caused them to lose concentration and make mistakes on the job.
So what exactly is boredom and how do we prevent it?
Thomas Eastwood, a psychologist and the co-author of a book called The Unengaged Mind, says that conceptually boredom is “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity. All instances of boredom involve a failure of attention, and attention is what you are using to blot out the plethora of stimuli around you while you focus awareness on a given topic.”
Many react to this inability to focus on what is appealing in the moment by trying to “blot out” the moment. They immerse themselves in media such as TV, music, computer games, and texting – anything to distract them from what is going on here and now. As Eastwood says about this tendency, “The problem is we’ve become passive recipients of stimulation. We say, ‘I’m bored, so I’ll put on the TV or go to a loud movie.’ But boredom is like quicksand: the more we thrash around, the quicker we’ll sink.”
Experts who have helped those suffering from depression to overcome their feelings of boredom pass along several suggestions for how we can fight or eliminate boredom in our own lives:
• Become aware of the boredom and “sit with it” rather than trying to force it away. That is, instead of taking action, take no action. People who have tried this have reported that very often their sense of boredom goes away.
• Do something “out of the box,” even irrational. Sometimes feelings of boredom arise just from performing the same activities over and over. Try doing something new, something that forces you to feel more alive. For some people that may be taking dance lessons, for others, just going to a new restaurant. The important thing is to break your habit patterns and establish some new ones.
• If you’re bored often, look at those around you – are they boring, or “do-ers?” Boredom tends to be “catching” or communicable, like a cold. If you find that your normal companions often don’t have much to say and are acting bored, consider expanding your circle to include others who don’t seem to be as prone to boredom.
• Play. We love looking at children when they are playing because they’re so in the moment. Their full attention is involved in playing, and the sense of joy and fun that full involvement with an activity brings to them. So if you’re feeling bored, try to remember something that is always fun for you, and that always makes you feel as if you’re playing. Then go out and do it.