Matt Heath: Stop taking your phone into the bathroom

Publish Date
Tuesday, 23 May 2023, 2:35PM

Is anyone else really bored?

Movies, music, social media, work, sports, none of it is as exciting as it should be or used to be. There is more entertainment than ever, yet we are somehow less entertained.

Ironically, this boredom might be the result of not doing enough boring things. For generations, New Zealanders spent their lives engaged in mundane activities. As a result, we could enjoy anything that wasn’t. In 2023, we can’t stand a second without stimulation. We are so terrified of boredom most of us won’t visit the bathroom without a phone in our hands.

American psychiatrist and author of Dopamine Nation Dr Anna Lembke asks an interesting question. “Why are the richest countries in the world the ones that have the most anxiety, depression and physical pain? Lots of food, lots of fun stuff, lots of medicines to protect us from illness and pain, but we’ve clearly reached some kind of tipping point, we’re now essentially more miserable than ever.”

She believes the co-location of our pleasure and pain processing centres plays a significant role in this modern dissatisfaction. There is a region of our brains called the ventral pallidum that acts like a scale, with pleasure on one side and pain on the other. The human body tends to seek homeostasis. When we become too hot, we sweat to cool down, and when we become too cold, we shiver to warm up. The same demand for balance is true in our reward centres. When we experience pleasure, the brain generates pain to maintain equilibrium. This creates problems for those of us living in lucky nations like New Zealand. Our lives are so filled with pleasurable substances, experiences, and behaviours that our reward pathways have become overwhelmed. We need more and more pleasurable things just to feel normal.

As Dr Lembke writes, “There’s a cost for every pleasure, and that cost is pain. If we continue to inundate our reward pathway with pleasurable substances and behaviours, we don’t just end up at net zero; we end up with a balance tilted towards pain.”

Many of us live in a base state set to unease and dissatisfaction. In the most comfortable time in human history, many of us feel constantly uncomfortable. Dr Lembke recommends a recalibration of our reward systems by doing difficult, uncomfortable and painful things. Cold showers, hard physical work and exercise make us feel good because the brain adjusts to the pleasure side. Try 50 minutes of intense yoga, finishing in 10 minutes of resting pose (savasana.) if you want a demonstration. I totally recommend yoga by the way. I am doing a minimum half an hour every day this year, and it’s changing my life. Yogi23.

Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr Alok Kanojia suggests cutting back on the stimulus in the first place. He believes we should build up our tolerance for boredom. You can start this process by not taking your phone to the bathroom with you. That this suggestion worries us is a testament to how overstimulated we have become. Irish comedian Dylan Moran discussed the issue on the Project last week: “You go to the bathroom, and you sit down, and you’re holding your phone. I remember when that wasn’t the case. We were more comfortable in our universe then. That is gone.”

Dr Kanojia believes the small act of leaving your phone behind and sitting in peace can start to calibrate you away from unhealthy desires. If you can create a foothold of under-stimulation in there, you may be inclined to risk boredom in other parts of your life. Maybe you could choose not to watch anything at dinnertime. No screens, just the people you love and your delicious meal. Surely that is enough.

As you progress in your journey towards a tolerance of boredom, you may find yourself going for walks or runs without headphones or reading a book for more than 30 seconds without grabbing your phone. Over time as you do more and more boring stuff, the motivation to do hard, healthy and productive things returns. The work you need to get done becomes stimulating enough that you will actually do it. You can experience high levels of enjoyment from worthwhile things while walking around with a base level closer to contentment.

We have more opportunities and entertainment than ever before, yet we spend our lives bored and unmotivated. You can start the fight back by not taking your phone into the bathroom. If you are already in there reading this - stop. This could be your first step towards a more productive, entertained, satisfying and balanced existence.

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