The One Thing Prisoners, Teens, and Retirees Have in Common

4 minute read
Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger are the authors of "SURPRISE: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected," on sale April 7.

Prisons, classrooms, boardrooms, hospitals, and senior care facilities have little in common. Yet to our brains, they are virtually indistinguishable in one important respect: They are all boring.

It may seem that boredom would be the least of someone’s worries in prison, but as Lorena Rivera (re-entry entitlement specialist for imprisoned women with mental illness) told us in an interview for our book, boredom is one of the toughest aspects of doing time. She said that the inmates “swallow things, mutilate their skin, refuse to eat, and sometimes throw or eat their feces just so they could be moved to another facility.” Why do they want to move to a different facility? They just want a change of scenery, Rivera explains. They just want to be a little less bored.

How much boredom can we tolerate? It turns out that it isn’t very much. In a recent study, participants chose to administer electric shocks to themselves rather than sit in a room with nothing to do for up to 15 minutes. In another experiment, participants voluntarily shocked themselves while watching a boring film clip rather than watching passively. The same study found (less surprisingly) that bored viewers consumed significantly more M&Ms than engaged viewers.

To understand these seemingly bizarre behaviors, it helps to consider boredom from the perspective of its scientific name: hypostress. While distress is the stress of too much stimulation, hypostress is the stress of too little stimulation. Just as with distress, hypostress causes our cortisol levels to rise. But unlike with distress, we cope with boredom by seeking out more stimulation. The stimuli we choose may range from excessive TV watching and snacking to hazardous alcohol consumption and risky sexual behavior. And if we can’t find a way to alleviate boredom, our brains shift into learned helplessness, and depression may follow.

What is the cumulative impact of all these unhealthy coping behaviors? A major longitudinal study found that individuals who felt boredom frequently were more likely to die younger than those who were not bored.

So how do we eliminate boredom effectively?

Our hypothesis is that the answer lies in surprise. While too much surprise can trigger anxiety, too little surprise triggers boredom. Whether we’re examining an elementary school classroom or a lifeless marriage, the best question to ask isn’t “how can we feel less bored?” but “how can we add more surprise?”

Surprise unifies and intensifies our attention, immediately reducing inattention (one of the biggest problems of boredom). As we learned in an interview with Wolfram Schultz, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, surprise also feeds our need for stimulation, intensifying our emotions by about 400%.

Zoos realized long ago that animals will get depressed when they are surprise-deprived. Zookeepers help animals stay healthy and happy by giving them unexpected challenges (such as puzzles to solve) and variety (such as new toys). Not only do these enriched environments lead to happier animals, research by Donald O. Hebb that goes back as far as 1947 reveals that animals in enriched environments also learn and solve problems more quickly.

The boredom cure is remarkably similar for humans. Our brains thrive when we experience the entire surprise spectrum: variety, delight, suspense, and anticipation.

In prisons, individuals may be invited to take part in learning and creativity opportunities like the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. In classrooms, teachers can weave in new, hands-on activities every 10 to 15 minutes. (This approach works with young kids, and, as we’ve found at LifeLabs New York, it works just as effectively for adult learners.) In senior residence centers, members can be regularly introduced to new skills and ideas.

In short, any environment or aspect of our lives that has too little surprise and uncertainty is at risk for triggering boredom. When we are bored, we act out, make unhealthy choices, or just lose interest in the world around us. When we’re surprised, we have no choice but to sit up, plug into the moment, and pay attention.

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