Childhood Obesity and Boredom

[graffiti that reads 'boredom']

In his examination of the life of novelist and MacArthur Fellow David Foster Wallace, D.T. Max noted, “With the help of researchers, Wallace assembled hundreds of pages of research on boredom, trying to understand it at an almost neurological level.”

“They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom,” goes the lyric of a Leonard Cohen song. “Boredom kills brain cells,” says poet and NPR broadcaster Andrei Codrescu. According to novelist Hector Malot, “Being bored is the worst kind of sickness.” Cartoonist Ace Backwords once proposed that boredom, not hatred, is the opposite of love. Evelyn Waugh’s biographer said of him, “The thing he feared most in life was boredom.” National Book Award winner Jonathan Franzen wrote, “Boredom is the soil in which the seeds of addiction sprout.”

Surprising results

Last time, Childhood Obesity News referenced the recent University of Virginia study in which psychologist Timothy D. Wilson left people alone in rooms with their thoughts. He found that, given the opportunity, people confronted by the intense discomfort of boredom would relieve it by voluntarily self-administering jolts of pain.

But that came later. At first, the experimental subjects (male and female, ages 18 to 77) were simply placed in a room devoid of distraction for 6 to 15 minutes, and it bothered them a lot more than seemed reasonable. As a variation, Wilson allowed the stimulus-free periods to be carried out at home. When the reports came in, his team learned that participants were no happier to be alone with their thoughts in their own familiar environments. Some found the boredom so undesirable, they even cheated.

Wilson borrowed equipment from a colleague and took the experiment to the next level. Subjects were told that while in the room devoid of other stimuli, they could give themselves a mild electrical zap to the ankle. They were allowed to try it out ahead of time, so they would know what kind of sensation to expect. What happened? Judy McGuire reported for Today:

Many people are so uncomfortable with quiet contemplation that many of them — and especially men — would rather experience minor electrical shocks than spend time alone with their thoughts.

We also considered the known devastating effects of boredom on deaf children and youth, and learned that it can cause depression, frustration, anxiety, exhaustion, headache, muscular tension, stress, lack of concentration, and even stomach troubles and eating disorders. To varying degrees, these same problems apply to any children and teens who experience boredom.

Dr. Pretlow suggests that often the feeling identified as boredom could be anxiety or background stress with an inaccurate label slapped on it. For teenagers especially, and particularly for boys, admitting to anxiety or stress can be tantamount to confessing weakness. Admitting to boredom, on the other hand, can make a kid feel sophisticated and superior. Dr. Pretlow is very interested in the tendency of young people to snack when there is nothing to do. He says:

More and more in our studies it seems that overeating in young people (and probably in adults as well) is due mainly to nervous eating or boredom, rather than comfort eating (depression) or cravings/addiction.

McGuire interviewed psychotherapist Teri Cole, who remarked that “people are endlessly self-soothing in the moment.” To escape boredom they will do anything from eating ice cream to shocking themselves with electricity. But psychotherapist Paula Carino noted that quiet time is essential to our well-being, because in it we “learn to tolerate difficult feelings and thoughts.” The good news is, what people perceive as boredom can be repurposed and made into a helpful tool. If we resist the impulse to escape from contemplative isolation, we can burrow into it and deal with those difficult feelings and thoughts. McGuire wrote:

Cole and Carino recommend meditation for their clients, and indeed Wilson pointed out that research subjects who already practiced meditation had a much easier time with the experiment. Studies have shown that along with improving one’s powers of concentration, meditation also lowers blood pressure and revs up your immune system.

Clearly, meditation is one of the coping skills that can help kids free themselves from the “boredom eating” habit.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Farther Away: ‘Robinson Crusoe,’ David Foster Wallace, and the island of solitude,”, 04/18/11
Source: “Shocking study: People would rather jolt themselves than be alone with their thoughts,”, 07/03/14
Image by Julian Frost

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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