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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January 28, 2014 - 9:30am
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