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Boredom and Surprise – Teens and Elders

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The most critical thing I do each day is write article headlines. The reason it is so important is that when I get it right you and other readers will open the email and then click on the article. If I get it  wrong . . . if the title is boring, you will move on to the next thing you need or want to get done. This can be very frustrating when a really good article gets a less than stellar headline.

This past week Time Magazine published an article titled: The One Thing Prisoners, Teens, and Retirees Have in Common. The article was written in advance of a book titled "SURPRISE: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected,” which went on sale earlier this week (and I am already reading). 

The premise of the article and the book is that boredom is a terrible plague for teens and elders..

The Boredom Problem

It turns out that we all hate boredom. From the article:

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.

In prisons inmates do all sorts of bizarre self-destructive things in an effort to alleviate boredom. In other settings, like senior living, what happens is that residents can easily fall victim to something called hypostress, which is the absence of stimulation. (Hypostress is the opposite of distress, which is too much stimulation.)

When individuals experience hypostress they seek out more stimulation. This process frequently includes excessive TV time, overeating, drinking, taking drugs or risky sexual behaviors. If individuals are unable to alleviate boredom, their brains shift into a mode of learned helplessness, which often leads to depression.

Has this depressed you yet?

Based on a major study the end result of prolonged hypostress is a reduced lifespan.

The Surprising Solution

The book authors believe the solution to hypostress is surprise. They believe the best question to be asking is not how can we feel less bored but how can we add more surprise to our lives . . . and the lives of residents?  Here is what surprise brings to the table:

  • “Surprise unifies and intensifies our attention, immediately reducing inattention”
  • It reduces depression
  • The unexpected (surprise) challenges people and challenged people are happier people
  • There is evidence that surprise can actually improve cognitive abilities, like being able to solve puzzles faster (or at all)
  • It improves creativity

Implications for Senior Living

This has huge implications for senior living. From an efficiency standpoint routine is very efficient. It keeps costs predictable and controllable. It makes staffing relatively simple. It turns out that it is just not so very good for residents and likely not so good for staff.

While it is not likely to show up on employee satisfaction surveys one can’t help but wonder how much of the turnover we see in senior living has nothing to do with how difficult the work is but rather how mind numbingly boring it is.

Finally boredom leads to complacency or mindlessness. These two things are at the root of bad resident care and poor decision making on the part of team members. This can all lead to bad things happening to residents and crushing legal problems.

Being deliberate about creating surprise would seem to be a great thing to do for residents and have the bonus of creating more engagement for and with your team. I find myself thinking that it would be great fun to create a surprise committee in every single community.

Steve Moran

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