Bored to death

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Every Monday is the same. You sit in your morning lecture and struggle to suppress a series of yawns. You drift in and out while your professor’s voice gradually becomes background noise. You lean over to a friend and whisper, “Kill me now!”

Be careful what you wish for. A recent study suggests being bored can actually kill you. Researchers at University College London found that people who are bored are more likely to die earlier in life.

In the study, researchers examined over 7,000 interviews with British civil servants between 1985 and 1988 and discovered that those who admitted being bored at work were two and a half times more likely to have died from a heart condition by April 2009.

Boredom plagues us all. It’s commonly viewed as unproductive and in the study, boredom is identified as an unhealthy emotional response.

But some doctors and academics believe that boredom can actually be good for you.

Poet and essayist, Joseph Brodsky, said boredom broadens the mind. He thought that boredom is not something that should be feared or avoided, but rather something that should be embraced. “[Boredom] is your window on time’s infinity,” he said in a 1995 commencement address at Dartmouth College. “Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”

If you’ve ever watched the clock and felt like time was moving by at a painfully slow pace, Brodsky would say you are having a genuine experience of time. “[Boredom] represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.”

Mark Berber, a staff psychiatrist at Markham Stouffville hospital, says boredom can be healthy. Activities like vegging out in front of the television can be very relaxing and even lower blood pressure. So all of those episodes of Lost might have actually reduced your chances of getting a heart attack, diabetes or a stroke.

Berber says the study might be misleading. One of the nine symptoms of depression is a lack of interest in routine activities, and the study may have been detecting one of the symptoms of depression rather than plain and simple boredom. “The outsider might say he appears bored because he’s doing nothing, but in fact, he’s already become depressed and he just has no drive,” Berber says. Depression has also been linked to heart problems and a diminished life span.

It’s people who don’t take time to relax or leave room for boredom that concern Berber. “Workaholics are totally unhealthy. If you’re just working, working, working, working, your level of satisfaction will drop and your level of frustration will increase.”

Students are notorious for overworking themselves and Paige Boersma, 24, fits the profile all too well. The fourth-year fashion student has been developing a business plan for her own clothing store. Researching locations, purchasing inventory and the constant search for investors and funding takes up to 20 hours of her time each week. She uses her blog and social networking to promote the business, which requires about eight to 10 hours, and on top of this, Boersma interns at French Connection Headquarters for 20 hours a week with a full course load and homework to boot.

“I always have my computer with me. No matter where I am, there is always something I can be doing,” she says. But all of this work on only four hours of sleep a night can take its toll. “I’ve had breakdowns,” Boersma admits. “There have been tears and those moments where you’re just like ‘I can’t do this anymore’. I kind of just have to say, OK, I’m at the breaking point now but I know I’m going to get through it.” Boersma recognizes that her workaholic attitude is unhealthy, but her personality is such that she prefers it this way. “I think it is just who I am. I take on too much. I kind of thrive on it. I don’t know why or where that came from. It’s just the way it is.”

Dr. Berber says health and happiness are all about balance. “Like stress and anxiety, you should be aware when you’re doing too much of a bad thing. A little bit of [boredom] is okay but if you’re not balanced, that’s when the problem arises.”

Some students are able to locate that balance. Stefanie Trowell is a firstyear student at The Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine training to become a naturopathic doctor. Her training demands 35 in-class hours a week and at least 20 hours of homework. Trowell holds a part-time job as a graphic designer, is the social representative for all first year students at the College and is training for a marathon. Trowell also attends two yoga classes every day, which she says helps her unwind. “My yoga class is very restorative and spiritual,” she says.

Trowell rarely feels overwhelmed by her many commitments. “I don’t really ever get to that breaking point. I feel like I know when it’s coming on and I have the skills to deal with it before it becomes unmanageable.”

But let’s be realistic. Not everyone finds relaxation in yoga or crossword puzzles. Some of us enjoy turning on the television and shutting off our brains. Moderation is the key. If you find yourself blowing off your whole day playing with apps on your iPhone, you might be over-doing it. Don’t over-commit yourself if you know there won’t be time to take breaks. Maybe too much boredom can kill you, but not enough is equally dangerous.

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