Science Shows You Can Die of Boredom, Literally

How does boredom correlate with life expectancy?

Posted Mar 03, 2010

Monthly magazines from Reader's Digest to Cosmopolitan are inundated with tips on how to sleep better, find happiness, and weave seriously sexy hair. Taking nothing away from being happy and blowing your romantic partner's mind on Valentine's Day, there are few things as valuable as staying alive.

Sometimes we fail to take life and death seriously. Think back to those painful days of calculus class in high school. You and your classmates probably voiced the same complaint year after year: "I'm so bored, I could die!" And yet, did your calculus teacher care? Did they offer a hug or show the slightest bit of empathy? Probably not. And what about the desperate pleas of innocent children on long, monotonous car rides? All children want is a life free from boredom's jaws of death and yet, parents often ignore them. With this in mind, try to withhold your skepticism for a moment as I share a new scientific discovery:

The more bored you are, the more likely you are to die prematurely

Could cold-hearted calculus teachers and parents be culpable of involuntary manslaughter? The answer is beyond my area of expertise. I'll leave that to legal authorities. What is important is that we consider what we can due to curb boredom. It may not be innocuous.

Over 7,500 London civil servants between ages 35 and 55 were interviewed in the late 1980s. Among other questions, they were asked if they felt bored at work during the past month. The same people were tracked down to find out who died by April 2009. What the researchers found was that civil servants who reported being very bored were 2.5 times more likely to die of a heart problem than those who hadn't reported being bored.

You might be asking yourself, what the %$#@ does this mean? To put this into perspective, consider this fact by the American Heart Association: Smokers are two to four times likely to develop coronary heart disease than nonsmokers. People with a molotov cocktail of obesity, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar (that is, all three at once) are twice as likely to have a heart attack and three times more likely to die earlier than the rest of the population. This means that death by boredom is right up there with the favorite targets of media fear mongering, public policy, and pharmaceutical companies. But nobody is talking about boredom.

Of course, there are some serious problems with this conclusion. Boredom might not be the direct culprit. Someone who is bored is unlikely to be motivated to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps bored people are more likely to subsist on microwave dinners and Chef Boyardee Beefaroni. Perhaps people are bored because they are incredibly stressed out.

Bored people may be less invested in learning, challenging themselves, and growing. In turn, the natural brain degeneration that occurs as we age is likely to speed up. This is because as we attend to novelty, manage novelty, and extract rewards from novel and challenging situations, we build and strengthen existing neuronal connections in the brain. Being curious and exploring the world has been shown to be a protective factor against degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. Curiosity helps our brains stay young.

Each day, our curiosity system devotes our efforts toward the pursuit of all the traditional rewards of the world — water, food, warmth or coolness (depending on our internal thermostat), sexual gratification, and social relationships. When our needs are fulfilled, curiosity promotes enthusiastic exploration of the world, helping create new knowledge and promote new interests. And when new and uncertain situations arouse anxiety and fear, instead of being paralyzed, we explore instead of avoid.

If boredom kills, then perhaps cultivating curiosity heals. Of course, much more research is required to validate our understanding of boredom and curiosity.