Cure for boredom may be some kind of ho-humdinger

August 02, 1993|By Loraine O'Connell | Loraine O'Connell,Orlando Sentinel

Well, here it is, another day at the office, and Jean is whiling away the hours as she often does:

Reading magazines.

Paying bills.

Writing personal letters.

"I'm bored to tears," wails this 44-year-old Orlando, Fla., woman, who did not want her last name used. "I don't have enough to do."

Even when she has work to do, Jean -- a well-paid corporate manager -- is bored.

"It's not challenging stuff," she says.

So along with the other personal business she takes care of at work, Jean prepares resumes.

"I'm looking for another job in a big way -- I've been looking for a long time."

Boredom is a natural response to such a predicament, psychologists say.

The mood state we call boredom is best defined as "a state of low psychological arousal and low physiological arousal from an absence of stimulation and novelty," says Daniel Tressler, a Winter Park, Fla., clinical psychologist.

Most of us get bored periodically with various areas of our lives: work, marriage, recreation.

And, like Jean, most of us do something about it, whether it's tTC seeking another job, perking up our romantic lives or tackling a new hobby.

But a lot of folks are clueless about how to remedy their boredom, says Alan Caruba, founder of the Boring Institute, based in Maplewood, N.J.

"When I started the institute in 1984, I had no intention of creating anything other than a spoof, something to entertain people," Mr. Caruba says. "But I started getting a lot of mail from people asking for advice on how to deal with boredom.

"I began to research the topic and discovered links between boredom and a lot of personal and social problems."

So Mr. Caruba, whose institute produces yearly lists of the most boring films and celebrities, has taken a more serious tack -- for example, peppering the media with statistics on suicide, depression, alcoholism and drug use.

He's convinced that chronic boredom, as opposed to the transitory kind we all experience, plays a role in each.

"The primary problem is that people slide from boredom into depression," says Mr. Caruba, a former business and science writer who's examined scads of studies on his favorite topic.

"Adults try a variety of antidotes [to boredom] which don't work," he says. "One reason diets fail is that people eat to cope with boredom. It's the easiest thing to do."

To Mr. Caruba, booze and drug ingestion, gang membership and crime also are methods for dealing with boredom.

"It's known that where a community is unable to provide recreational facilities, it's going to automatically have a problem of young people hanging out, drinking, getting into vandalism and worse," he says.

But Mr. Tressler says that's a little too simplistic.

Some people, whether teen-agers or senior citizens, manage to find constructive alternatives to boredom; others don't.

In psychospeak, it all depends on where your "locus of control" is -- external or internal.

"If I expect all my stimulation to come from the outside" -- an external locus -- "then I would have a very low threshold for boredom because I'm always going to be waiting for things to appear to me," Mr. Tressler says.

On the other hand, "If I'm an individual who believes my behavior and my emotions are largely under my own control" -- an internal locus -- "I'm more likely to find some internally generated stimulation and I'll be less vulnerable to boredom."

What makes for an inny or an outty? What else? The modeling your parents gave you.

"If they're busy and active and enjoying their lives, the odds are the children learn from them," Mr. Caruba says.

"But if Mother and Dad come home and the only thing the children ever learn is to sit in front of the TV, the children will never develop the skills they need to break out of that pattern."

True, says Mr. Tressler, but nature plays just as much of a role in boredom as nurture.

"Individuals whose central nervous systems are under-reactive will require a high degree of stimulation" to feel good, he says.

"These people are more inclined both to be bored with things other people find stimulating and to need a higher level of thrill seeking, whether it's bungee cord jumping or roller coaster riding or parachuting."

Thus, if you have a person who's an outty, who looks to the world around him to entertain him, and a central nervous system that demands high levels of stimulation, you've got potential trouble.

This is the person who's most likely to look to food, alcohol or drugs to avoid boredom, Mr. Tressler and Mr. Caruba say.

Innies with a demanding nervous system "will find stimulation through sports, things that require them to take the initiative," Mr. Tressler says.

The people most likely to avoid boredom are innies who are creative and intelligent, he adds. They can amuse themselves without breaking a sweat by writing or playing chess, for example -- "things that require a high level of intellect," Mr. Tressler says.

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