[Paleopsych] Prevention: Do You Have the Silent Syndrome? How boredom affects health; ways to prevent boredom
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Do You Have the Silent Syndrome? How boredom affects health; ways to prevent
Prevention, May 2000 v52 i2 p140
by Linda Mooney
It's been linked to everything from heart attack to drug abuse, and it can even
lead to premature death. Find out what this hidden risk factor is--and learn 29
simple (and fun!) ways to neutralize it
It may promote back pain, heart attack, depression, and hostility. It may lead
you to abuse drugs, drive drunk, develop an eating disorder, or cheat on your
spouse. It may even shrink your brain like a cotton shirt in scalding water.
And it could kill you. One researcher speculates that when all else fails, this
mysterious risk factor "entertains itself" by making you sick--possibly even by
promoting the development of cancer.
What is this silent threat? Boredom. Sounds impossible, but it's true.
Twenty-one percent of Americans say that they are regularly bored. A lot of
researchers think the number is much higher. They view boredom as a
serious--and often undetected--form of stress. They say that it's so pervasive
in America that we just don't notice it. And yet it's remarkably easy--and
Why It's Trouble
Boredom is ennui, malaise, the blahs, a rut, a big yawn. When you're bored,
"nothing matters much," says Sam Keen, PhD, from Sonoma, CA, author of Inward
Bound (Bantam, 1992). "You have no burning dreams or lively hopes. Not even
outrage. You go through the day automatically, by the numbers, without feeling.
Same old rat race."
Boredom is sometimes tough to detect because it's less of a feeling than an
"overwhelming absence of feeling," says Steve Vodanovich, PhD, associate
professor of psychology at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, whose
studies have found that boredom-prone people report more emotional symptoms
than other people.
When you're bored, you may sense that there's "something wrong" but can't put
your finger on it. If you could, you might take up an interesting hobby,
travel, or sign up for a workshop. But more often than not, says Dr.
Vodanovich, "boredom can drive us to self-destructive acts."
Studies have linked boredom to accidents, drug use, pathological gambling, even
street violence. Surveys show that many people ease their boredom with
over-eating, drinking, and infidelity. Boredom can also lead to depression.
(See "When Is Boredom Depression?" on p. 144.)
Everyone's susceptible, though studies show that boredom is more common in men.
You're also more likely to be bored the older you get, as you fall victim to
the "been there, done that" phenomenon.
That process may be accelerated by TV and movies, which allow you to have
"virtual" experiences that might otherwise have taken you many years to
accumulate, if at all, suggests Augustin De la Pena, PhD, a psychophysiologist
at the Sleep Disorders Center in Austin, TX.
Dr. De la Pena's controversial theory--that your mind "entertains itself"
through aging and disease processes--is based on his review of about 1,000
animal and human studies.
Thanks to your accumulated screen time, "you start getting bored earlier in
life, aging quicker, and developing all sorts of disorders and diseases in
order to stay, in a sense, entertained," he says.
Other evidence is not speculative. The famed Framingham Heart Study found that
bored housewives were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack than
Studies by Marian Diamond, PhD, professor of anatomy in the department of
integrative biology at the University of California in Berkeley, found that
when rats are deprived of stimulation--science-talk for bored--their cortex
shrinks. Dr. Diamond was even able to stimulate brain growth in old rats when
she supplied them with toys and the company of other rats.
Usually, it's not wise to try to translate rat studies to humans, but in this
case you can make an exception. Take a tip from the rats: A little stimulation
can be a healthy thing. "Boredom is a gentle signal to move on to a new
challenge. If you don't respond, stronger ones can follow, such as depression,
pain, illness, even death," says Dr. Keen.
29 Ways to Get Out of Your Rut
In 1996, 48-year-old Alaskan Salli Slaughter-Mason took a look at her life--a
loving husband, wonderful kids, a great job, and strong community ties--and
asked herself, "Is that all there is?" Despite their fairy-tale life, the
Slaughter-Masons weren't happy. They were too busy, too stressed, and stuck in
So, over oysters on their 18th wedding anniversary, Salli asked her husband,
"What do you want to do before you die?" Neither could answer the question
right away. But by evening's end, they had an answer: a chance to see the
world. Months later, they sold all their possessions, left their Anchorage home
and their jobs, and set off to homeschool their 7- and 14-year-old girls on a
yearlong sabbatical around the world.
Although it cost them half of their retirement nest egg, Salli says it was "the
best thing we've ever done. Through our journey, we grew closer, stronger, and
happier as a family and as individuals. None of us will ever be the same."
The Slaughter-Masons' solution is one way--a big way--to shake up your life.
But you don't have to cash in your 401(k) to stir up a little excitement. Here
are some easy--and fun--rut busters:
When you're bored with your relationship ...
1. Dare to be bare. When was the last time you greeted your mate unexpectedly
in the nude? Light a few candles, pour wine, play some Pavarotti, and offer to
rub his feet. Slip a passionate letter into her briefcase. Break the boring
cycle: Do or say something each day that surprises your spouse and you.
2. Go for goose bumps. Is a movie, nature walk, or bike ride your idea of a
pleasant weekend afternoon? Then try a bungee jump, go skydiving, or hop aboard
the most spine-tingling roller coaster you can find. In a study of 53 married
couples assigned to spend 1 1/2 hours a week together doing self-defined
pleasant or exciting activities, those who did exciting activities showed a
greater increase in marital satisfaction afterward than those who engaged in
3. Trim some trees. Sure, it's his job, but he's going to be doing the
vacuuming and grocery shopping instead. Swapping chores spices up the routine
and gives a new sense of appreciation for what your other half does.
4. Open your home. Just as couples bond over babies, bringing any new life into
your house adds a spark. Take in an exchange student, or adopt a homeless pet.
Host weekly dinner parties or a game of poker with friends.
[Graphic omitted] 5. Make old times new. Did you ever enjoy going to rock
concerts, cooking lasagna together, or sharing hot chocolate at the 30-yard
line? Do you remember all the laughs you had playing Trivial Pursuit or
Scrabble? Dust off those good times and give them another chance, but add a
little intrigue to any competitive pursuits --play for money (or something
6. Do tell, do ask. Is life a yawn for your partner too? Chances are, you're
both going stir-crazy. This is a wonderful time to re-open the lines of
communication and build intimacy. Bring up the subject in a fun way--for
example, as you take your surprised spouse to a swing dancing class or foreign
When you're bored with your job ...
7. Look between the lines. If your job is boring you out of your gourd,
consider the possibility that it could be your fault. "Boredom is in the mind
of the individual and is not a function of the environment," says Ellen Langer,
PhD, professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Power of
Mindful Learning (Addison-Wesley, 1997). To prove her point, she took women
typically bored by football and divided them into groups. She told one group
just to watch the Super Bowl game; another to watch it but also look for three
to six things they'd never noticed before. In the end, the women who were
looking for interesting things liked the game more than before--and the more
things they found, the more they enjoyed it. To apply this to your job, walk in
tomorrow as if it were your first day. Keep your eyes and ears open for
interesting things that you've never noticed before. See if it doesn't feel
like a new job too.
[Full Size Picture] 8. Jump-start your day. Even the commute can feel like
work. Make it enjoyable so you arrive in a better mood. Go to a local pool
first thing in the morning and swim. Take the scenic route to work. Listen to a
classic book on tape or your favorite CD. Or shut off the news and enjoy the
silence of your thoughts.
9. Sign up. Take a PowerPoint workshop or a night course in accounting or a
second language. Ask the boss if you can serve on the quality control
committee. Start a Toastmasters group. Gathering new skills and talents not
only keeps you challenged but builds on your realm of expertise so that you can
ask for more responsibility--a big plus, since having more say over your work
makes any job more interesting.
10. Loosen up. When it's possible, blur the line between work and play. Form a
team for a daily 3 PM game of hallway soccer; just 15 minutes can break the
monotony and get creative juices flowing. Or push to have meetings in exotic
locales. More companies are trying this, citing that the more informal
environment allows participants to relax and open up. Can't afford to take the
staff to an island? How about the local diner for coffee and bagels--or serve
refreshments in your own conference room? Be creative as you stick to your
11. Decide where you're going. Is crunching numbers crushing your spirit? Maybe
you should try for a position in budget planning. A lack of professional
direction or focus can make your job feel like just that--a job, not a career.
With a clear goal, the day-to-day routine feels more meaningful and less
12. Don't answer that! Just when you start writing that cumbersome dog-food
proposal, the phone rings or your computer says, "You've got mail." And your
concentration evaporates. According to one study, being disrupted a lot
contributes to feelings of boredom and dissatisfaction with a task, especially
if the interruption isn't urgent. To really get into the project, close your
door and let phone messages go through to voice mail.
[Full Size Picture] 13. Stop picking on you! Saying or thinking "My speech was
awful" or "I'll never be as good as Tom" can make your work even more tiresome.
In one study, people who were the most judgmental when it came to themselves
showed an increased tendency to become bored. Treat yourself like your best
friend; pick up fresh flowers for your office when you've finished a tough
14. Play hooky. Sneak out of the daily grind for an afternoon of pure hedonism.
Get a pedicure. Take off your shoes and walk barefoot in the grass. Have a root
beer float in an old-fashioned diner. If it rains, walk without an umbrella.
You'll return to work the next day feeling recharged.
15. Love it or leave it. If all else fails--and you can't redesign your
job--move on. Rediscover your real passion. Finding a field that's compatible
with your self-identity gives a general sense of purpose and can break you free
of ruts at home too.
When you're bored with your free time ...
16. Spook yourself. Try parasailing or amateur stand-up comedy (bring friends
who'll laugh no matter how you do). If you're single and haven't dated in eons,
ask out that cute salesclerk. Adventure and challenge trigger a release of
brain chemicals known as endorphins, which lift your mood and make you feel
17. Pull the plug on ER. Not only is vegging out on Mattock reruns
unproductive, but, according to one study, it can be addictive. TV gradually
requires more and more of your time to deliver that entertainment "high."
Research also shows that there's a reason it's called the boob tube: It can dim
your analytical abilities.
[Full Size Picture] 18. Fry up some blackened redfish. Take a class in
woodworking, black-and-white photography, fly-fishing, Shakespearean acting, or
Cajun-style cooking. Learn Russian or sign language. Take bareback riding
lessons. Learn to scuba dive. A Rutgers University study found that people who
did a variety of things were more satisfied with their life.
19. Join the crowd. Start a sci-fi book group, volunteer for a local political
party, lead a scout troop, or join a nearby chapter of the National Audubon
Society. It opens you up to a whole new world of people, and often
interpersonal relationships are the best spark plug to a more interesting life.
20. Imagine being someone else. Paint an accent wall bold blue. Change your
decor. Rearrange your furniture for a fresh perspective. Hang wind chimes.
Listen to Miles Davis if you are an Elvis fan. Try the catfish that you think
you hate. If you're a jeans person, dine out dressed in black satin, and don a
scarf or even a wig. By doing things that are out of character, you reinvent
yourself as the person you want to be.
21. Be a kid again. Start a snowball fight. Cut your sandwich into triangles,
and learn a new word every day. Wave to people in passing cars. Throw a slumber
party and have your friends bring stories and photos; pop popcorn and watch
22. Let fate guide you. Open up to the events section of your newspaper, close
your eyes, and point. Whatever you touch, you do--period. You may finally get
to see the local museum or historical sights in your area. Or maybe you'll end
up at a great bar or restaurant you've never gone to before. Trying this helps
you break out of the "there's nothing to do" box you've built in your mind. Do
the same thing with a map.
23. Set a quota. Tell yourself you're going to meet someone new once a week,
and plan to have at least five fun, memorable experiences each month. As the
end of the week or month approaches, check your progress. If you're lagging
behind, you know it's time to become more assertive and start making plans.
[Full Size Picture] 24. Nudge the drudge. Scraping macaroni off the dinner
plates and emptying the cat litter may feel more mentally fatiguing than, say,
all-day vigorous gardening, simply because you enjoy one more than the other.
To stave off boredom, use music and humor to make unpleasant tasks feel like
play or a game. Dusting to the oldies, anyone?
When you' re bored with retirement ...
25. Travel right. Even travel can become a routine if you're not careful. If
you always play golf and stay near the hotel, stay in a bed-and-breakfast and
go parasailing. Pass up the grilled chicken that you know and love for a local
sampling of alligator or curried lamb with banana-raisin chutney. Track down
the hideaway hot spots, make friends with the locals, and camp under the stars.
Or sign up for an adult education study tour and travel with a group for days
or weeks learning about art, archaeology, or wildlife ecology.
26. Live for today--and tomorrow. Can't see beyond tonight's pot roast? Mapping
the highlights of your past, present, and future is a great way to gain
perspective on what's important--and set your sights on the great things to
27. Peak past your prime. Just because your body's best days are behind it,
that doesn't mean that you can't reach for new heights. Pursue activities that
don't require heaps of physical prowess, such as learning to play the saxophone
or trying out for a role in your local amateur theater. Don't be afraid to do
28. Be a pal. Losing touch with the gang from your old neighborhood or
neglecting your best friend who moved to Seattle--then not making new
friends--can be a recipe for loneliness and boredom. One study done on older
adults revealed that a lack of friendships was a major contributing factor in
their depression and boredom.
[Full Size Picture] 29. Stay in the driver's seat. Research says that most of
us are happiest when the wheel is still ours as we age. Patients in one
nursing-home experiment lived longer when given greater control of their
institutionalized environment. As much as the kids or relatives may mean well,
in other words, politely encourage them to butt out.
Top 10 Boring Tasks(*)
1. Standing in line
7. Weeding lawn or garden
9. Political debates
10. Opening junk mail
(*) National poll results from the Boring Institute
RELATED ARTICLE: When Is Boredom Depression?
If you're like most Americans, you probably ignore boredom , hoping it'll pass.
Or maybe you start a new business. Or take up a hobby. Or have an affair. But
if these fail, you may find yourself depressed.
So how can you tell when seemingly harmless boredom has evolved into something
worse? "When the nothingness is replaced by violent feelings and vivid
imagination; when the void is alive with demons," says Sam Keen, PhD. "Think of
boredom as the common cold of the psyche, and depression as pneumonia." If
you've been experiencing painful boredom for several weeks, you're probably
depressed. Seek counseling. A psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor can help
you get to the root of your problem.
RELATED ARTICLE: Who's Bored?
Everyone gets bored sometimes, but certain personalities are more prone than
others. For simplicity, Sam Keen, PhD, from Sonoma, CA, and author of Inward
Bound (Bantam, 1992), breaks us down into the two personality types, A and B.
Here he describes how each type deals with boredom.
[Full Size Picture] Type A personalities: Fast-paced, sociable people escape
boredom by running from it or keeping it in their unconscious, but once it
catches up with them, they can fall prey to fatigue, or worse: depression or
Type B personalities: Laid-back folks are more boredom-prone but are not often
depressed because they tolerate boredom better than anxiety and aggression.
They are not threatened by inactivity or lack of intensity. The connection
between boredom and disease is less obvious for them.
Which is better? Both could learn something from the other, says Warren Rule,
PhD, professor of rehabilitation counseling at Virginia Commonwealth
University, Medical College of Virginia in Richmond. Type A's, who usually have
the most difficulty with boredom, are great at planning their futures but could
profit from getting more pleasure out of the present. Type B's, on the other
hand, should spend more time consciously figuring out what's missing in their
life, then learn to take risks.
Linda Mooney is Prevention's beauty editor.
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