Boredom and the Pursuit of Pleasure

We’ve all said it at one time or another:  I’m bored.

Boredom is emotional purgatory.  It qualifies as neither a good or bad mood.  It’s just…well… blah.  For that reason it often gets overlooked as a mood state that has a strong impact on behavior. However, boredom is actually associated with a lot of behaviors and can be one of the greatest challenges on the road to weight loss…not to mention on the road of life.  Unfortunately many things we do to escape boredom actually make it worse, creating a vicious cycle that can lead to some pretty serious problems–including obesity.

There are two types of boredom.  The first is garden variety boredom also known as the “blahs,” an acute state of being under-stimulated, or lacking in pleasure/enjoyment.  It is usually temporary, with some people experiencing bouts more frequently or prolonged than others.  This type of boredom typically originates from a lull in life and can be remedied when you discover a source of pleasure or enjoyment (i.e., something fun to do!).  Imagine you are sitting at home on a Friday night staring at the TV.  No plans, feeling bored.  Then a good friend calls and says, “Come on, over, we are firing up the barbecue!”  You are immediately excited– boredom resolved.

The second type of boredom, technically referred to as “anhedonia” is a neurobiologically-based reduced sensitivity to pleasurable experiences, meaning that your ability to experience pleasure is impaired.  In anhedonia, the pleasure centers in your brain under-react to enjoyable life experiences.  Anhedonia can be episodic too but also can be fairly longstanding.  This type of boredom is not remedied by seemingly enjoyable activities.  Imagine a person who used to love barbecues gets the same phone call.  He goes but does not experience the barbecue as pleasurable.  People with a propensity toward anhedonia may not necessarily look as you might imagine—dragging their feet with their heads hung low.  Anhedonia can instead manifest into high rates of pleasure-seeking behaviors, including drug use, smoking, risk taking, compulsive sexual activity, and….overeating.  These behaviors are actually attempts to really pound on those reward buttons because nothing else is working.

The Slippery Slope

Interestingly, how we go about relieving our garden variety boredom can actually cause us to develop anhedonia.

For a lot of people, boredom triggers behaviors for which there is a strong immediate biological basis for pleasure.  The obvious one is EATING.  Others include alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, and sex.   These all have in common their ability to instantly and powerfully light up the pleasure centers of our brains.  The problem comes when we over-rely on immediate basic pleasures to relieve boredom —eventually such habits can actually change your brain’s capacity to experience pleasure from anything else.  Check out the brain scans in the image to the left (courtesy of Pop Sci). Clockwise starting top left is lean person, obese person, alcoholic, and cocaine user. Lit up areas are the reward centers of the brain. Red indicates higher density of dopamine receptors, the neurotransmitter responsible for Woo Hoo! (pleasure). You can see reward deficiencies in the people with obesity, alcoholism, and cocaine use.  In rats, the normal brain can turn into the abnormal one just by forcing them to engage in any of these vices.  That hedonism leads to anhedonia is just one of life’s lovely little ironies.

Aren’t We All Just A Bunch of Porn Addicts

If you were getting bored by this post I’m pretty sure I just won you back.  How can I say that we are all porn addicts?   I mean it figuratively…sort of. Porn addicts are the classic case of self-induced anhedonia.  By frequently seeking extreme forms of sexual stimulation, the porn addict will eventually develop an inability to experience sexual pleasure from normal sexual activity; and if the habit goes long enough, an inability to experience pleasure from anything except porn.  This pattern of behavior actually changes the brain’s “baseline” of what turns them on.  As you can imagine, serious problems develop.  Like most addicts, extreme consequences (i.e., the “rock bottom” experience) are often necessary for them to stop the behavior, and then it takes a long time of consistently avoiding the stimuli for the brain to return to normal.

PORN!

We have become a nation of food-porn addicts.  Our relationship with food is hardly different than the porn addicts relationship with porn.  Junk food is the porn of our diets.  The mass production of food that is high in salt, fat, and sugar is resetting our brain’s baseline for what is satisfying.  One who consumes a diet high in pizza, burgers, donuts, and French fries is eventually going to find natural foods such as fruit, vegetables, and whole grains less and less satisfying.  The landscape of their diet will gradually change in favor of the high-pleasure foods and against natural foods.  Every time I hear an adult say they hate fruit and vegetables, I think to myself:  OH NO, PORN ADDICT!  (No worries, I keep these thoughts to myself.)  Even worse, by heavily relying on food as a way to deal with boredom (and other negative moods for that matter), we risk the gradual descent into anhedonia, where nothing in life feels as good as sinking your teeth into a slice of chocolate cake.

Here are few strategies to keep the boredom away while ensuring the pleasure centers in your brain remain healthy, and of course, free of porn-food!

1. Dump the Junk.   Porn foods (god I love saying that) –those high in sugar, fat, and salt, should be eaten only minimally– not a mainstay of your diet.  It is also very important to avoid these foods when bored or feeling bad–this is where you can really start messing with your brain chemistry.  Read here for more on emotional eating.

2. Build An Arsenal.  The pleasure you experience in life should not come from one single activity, but rather many activities.  Remember it is an over-reliance on one thing that paints us into a pleasure corner, slowly narrowing our brain’s ability to enjoy other things.  Make a list of 5 activities you really love but never do and schedule them over the next couple of weeks.  By putting enjoyable activities into your day, you can buffer yourself from using food as your “go to” boredom cure.

3. Remove Some Monotony From Your Routines – We all have routine activities that we cannot remove from life but can end up becoming monotonous and boring.  To avoid monotony, add variety to some aspect of these activities.  For example, if you exercise, you might plan a workout once a week in an entirely new environment.  If you read a lot, try reading at a library or coffee shop instead of home once in a while.  Eat dinner occasionally in a different room or outside.  Adding variety to routines can give your brain multiple sources of stimulation, which helps beat down the boredom.

4.  Get Out of the Comfort Zone.   We tend to spend time with the same people, travel to the same or similar destinations, read the same types of books, watch the same kinds of shows, and listen to the same 2-3 radio stations.  We do this because they are our favorites, but the tendency to seek pleasure from the same things over and over will reduce the pleasure capacity of those things—and this allows the boredom to seep in.  Get outside your box, there’s some cool stuff there!

5.  Beware of the Fine Line.  It’s one thing to add variety to your life and another to be a constant novelty seeker.  Novelty seeking is a personality trait that, interestingly, is highly associated with anhedonia.  Instead of being narrowly hung up on one single source of pleasure, such individuals are “addicted” to novel, highly exciting stimulation of any kind, making any and all aspects of daily life seem boring.   If you find yourself frequently drawn to activities like sky diving, bungee jumping, tattoos, binge drinking/eating/shopping, recreational drugs, and other wild or risky experiences, you might be a novelty seeker.  This type of pattern is usually motivated by the need to escape from the routines of life rather than making those routines more interesting and stimulating.

Creating a fulfilling and stimulating life requires a balance between finding pleasure within and outside the routine of life. If you are stuck in a rut of boredom, constantly stretch yourself with new and different activities that give your brain a reason to light up…so that it doesn’t end up going dark on you.

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3 Comments

  1. Mbfgmike says:

    Great post! I know back in the day I always overate when bored, I still have a tendency to do so. This post helps me understand why I fall into that trap and understanding for me is helpful in correcting the problem.. THANKS AGAIN!

    Reply
  2. mandosally says:

    Food porn – that IS fun to say. I love the suggestions for breaking routines and getting out of one’s comfort zone. Both prove really rewarding to me and almost always tend to result in a positive boost in my overall mood. My latest – I just got asked to join a band! You (1) cannot be bored playing in a band, (2) burn a bunch of calories playing music for hours, and (3) really can’t eat and play instruments or sing at the same time. At least I can’t. It’s a win, win, win!

    Reply

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