What's wrong with being a boring kind of guy," asked George Bush senior in 1988, back when he was running for president? As it turns out, a new study may have an answer for him. What's wrong with being boring, as it turns out, is that if your boring demeanor doesn't kill you, it might bore other people, which in turn could kill them -- literally.
The study, out of University College in London and published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, found that bored people die earlier. The study included over 7,500 London civil servants aged 35 to 55 who completed questionnaires at several intervals back in the mid 1980's. The questionnaires asked how much boredom the subjects had experienced at work in the previous month. Then 20 years later, the researchers tracked down the participants and discovered that the most bored among them had died from heart problems at two-and-a-half times the rate of those who hadn't reported feeling bored.
A 250 percent jump in mortality by way of boredom is no small factor. If your job is so routine that you have trouble keeping your eyes open at your desk, you might consider filing for disability, before your early demise makes collecting funds unlikely. At the least, quitting may make sense. However, before you write your "Dear Boss" letter -- know that the experts say it's probably not the boredom per se that will shorten your life, but rather, it's those things that boredom incites.
For one thing, it's no secret that bored people often use food to jazz things up. The bored worker sits in the cubicle and tells himself, "If I just finish checking this account, then I can reward myself with a snack." According to an article published in American Demographics, eating out of boredom is common enough that a study was commissioned to track the preferred treats of the bored in 2000, finding that 36 percent of bored people prefer chips to other snack foods. (And now we know why you can't eat just one.) The easy access to vending machines, cafeterias, and snacks in the office lunchroom can make office environments particularly dangerous, eating-wise. Boredom also leads some to the bottle. In fact, a study back in 2007 found that most teens who drink do so out of boredom.
"Someone who is bored may not be motivated to eat well, exercise, and have a heart-healthy lifestyle. That may make them more likely to have a cardiovascular event," said Dr. Christopher Cannon, of Harvard University and the American College of Cardiology. In fact, the most bored subjects in the study tended to be far less active than the subjects who weren't bored. They also tended to be younger, in lower grades of employment, and more likely to report poor health at the outset. Women reported boredom at twice the rate of men. (Hey guys, perhaps there's now a life-affirming reason you can pitch your spouse for watching ultimate fighting on TV.)
This leads to some chicken-egg questions: does poor health and inactivity lead to boredom, or does boredom lead to lethargy, which in turn leads to poor health? Is boredom an outgrowth of having certain "glass half-empty" personality traits, or does it come from being relegated to low-grade, dead-end jobs? Certainly, more young women end up in tedious jobs compared to men, which may account for the elevated boredom levels among young women in the study. And in fact, when job grade was controlled for, the death-by-boredom factor became less significant, as it did when activity level was controlled.
Some theorists think the reason boredom kills goes beyond the fact that the bored tend to neglect themselves. Boredom expert Sandi Mann of the University of Central Lancashire believes that boredom comes from suppressing anger, which raises blood pressure and depresses the immune system. Dr. Cannon thinks boredom comes from depression, and depression is a known risk factor for cardiovascular problems. He also believes that boredom may trigger the release of dangerous hormones that stress the heart. Others blame disconnection and loneliness, which again trigger physical consequences. (Do you sometimes get the feeling that the so called experts have no idea what they're talking about?)
In any event, the very fact that boredom at work seems to go hand-in-hand with inactivity, poor health, and early death is grist for the mill, making a case for instituting fitness programs at job sites, for varying work routines, and for monitoring employees (particularly young female employees) for levels of engagement.