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Can You Actually Be Bored to Death?

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Kind of. Boredom won’t directly kill you on its own, but it does make it more likely that a handful of other things will put you six feet under. 

Consider this: In a survey taken in the late 1980s, over 7500 London civil servants age 33 to 55, were asked, among other things, how bored they had been at work in the last month and how healthy and physically active they thought they were. Around 7 percent reported being bored “quite a lot” in the previous month, and about 2 percent said they were bored “a great deal,” and those who were more bored also reported lower physical activity and rated their health as worse. 

In 2009, decades after the survey was taken, a pair of public health researchers went through the survey data and the National Health Service’s central registry to see which survey takers had died and which ones were still alive. They found that the people who had been more bored at work were more likely to have died, and more than twice as likely to have had a fatal cardiovascular disease. (Increased likelihood of death tied to boredom also seemed to be cumulative. Data and surveys were collected several times over the the years, and the people who reported being bored multiple times were more likely to die than those who had only reported it once.)

The researchers thought that the boredom-death connection might have formed because bored people were more likely to feel unfulfilled, unmotivated, and unhappy, which could lead to unhealthy behaviors like excessive drinking and smoking, overeating, and drug use. Those habits, in turn, would increase their risks of stroke and heart disease. The state of boredom, they wrote, “is almost certainly a proxy for other risk factors.” 

Other research has connected boredom to risk-taking that can be hazardous to people’s health. Public health researchers in Baltimore found that, among urban drug users, those who were more bored were more likely to report symptoms of depression and engage in risky sexual and needle-use practices. Meanwhile, back in the UK, a psychologist and a civil engineer surveyed motorists and found that the drivers who were most prone to boredom while on the road were more likely to engage in driving habits that put them at high risk for accidents and crashes—like tailgating, speeding, driving while sleepy, or daydreaming behind the wheel—sometimes in an attempt to make driving more exciting. 

Novelty-seeking and risk-taking, psychiatrist Katya Rubia explains in Boredom: A Lively History, is also how bored children with ADHD “self-medicate” to cure their boredom. Likewise, psychologist Peter Suedfeld told mental_floss alum Maggie Koerth-Baker last year that “people will sometimes do reckless, stupid things when they suffer from chronic boredom.” The isolation of working on an Antarctic research station, he said, can send scientists out on solo strolls in the elements, sans coat, when the temperature is 40 below. 

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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
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AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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