All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

I'm so bored I want to tear my hair out.

We all know that feeling.

Yet until recently, boredom has been seldom studied. Perhaps it's because we believe it's an ethical category. As we like to say, idle hands are the devil's workshop.

But psychologists finally seem interested in the topic. And a spate of studies suggest that boredom actually poses a threat to health - life, even.

It's deadly, if you believe a 2010 study by researchers at University College London. They analyzed surveys of British civil servants conducted between 1985 and 1988. They found that those who said they were bored were 37 percent more likely to have died by the end of the study, April 2009.

"Studies have shown boredom leads to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol," said James Danckert, a neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

Danckert cites a recent study by University of Virginia psychologist Timothy D. Wilson finding that people would rather give themselves an electric shock than sit quietly in a room for 15 minutes with nothing but their thoughts to occupy them.

"The average was about 10 shocks," said Danckert, "but one male chose 190 electric shocks."

This suggests a strange link between boredom and violence. While the word boredom suggests weariness or apathy, the experience seems to include agitation, even aggression.

Think of the nameless dread that washes over you during horrific, unthinkable tragedies. Say, losing your smartphone.

"Try going without it," said filmmaker Albert Nerenberg. "I was shocked at how lost I felt and how bored I was," said the Montreal-based journalist, who undertakes a broad-ranging, humorous study of the phenomenon in his film Boredom (Entertainment One). "I became hyperaware of waiting rooms, bus stops, subway stations, all these boring places without escape."

Boredom has been as much a part of human civilization as the pastimes we create to stave it off, said Peter Toohey, author of Boredom: A Lively History (Yale University Press).

"There's a Latin inscription in the Italian town of Benevento that dates from the third century AD. It's the town thanking a local official for saving the population from endless boredom," said Toohey, who teaches classics at the University of Calgary. "He put on a lot of gladiatorial games."

You can get rid of boredom in a range of ways - witnessing gladiatorial gore in a Roman coliseum, say, or playing Shadows of the Damned on Xbox 360. But boredom has a far more intimate connection with violence.

"We use such violent words to talk about it," said Nerenberg. "I heard a schoolkid once say, 'I'd chew my own arm off, I was so bored in school.' " Toohey cites examples of chimps in captivity who break up the monotony by throwing rocks at visitors.

Other primates go for flash mobs or full riots.

"What makes a flash mob," said Temple University psychologist Frank Farley, is that "you're bored and you get a text telling you to meet in front of some restaurant."

Some have blamed boredom for the 2011 London riots, said Sandi Mann, who teaches psychology at University of Central Lancashire.

"Studies show boredom correlates with depression, aggression, anxiety . . . and it leads to addiction and other risk-taking behavior," she said. "Boredom is the modern-day stress. And I think there's more of it today than ever before."

Is there really?

Some educators seem to think so.

"Boredom can be seen as a plague in modern society," declares an article in the pedagogical journal Teaching and Teacher Education.

"There's a real paradox here," said Mann, whose self-help books include Overcome Phobias and Panic Attacks and Manage Your Anger. "We're bored at a time when we have much more to do than ever before . . . so many more things to entertain us."

No matter the distractions, many of us are unable to engage with the world, said Danckert, who studies how some brain injuries affect patients' boredom threshold.

"When people say they are bored all the time, it's because they can't select [an activity] or once selected, how to engage with it."

Farley said the anxiety around boredom reveals a deeper problem. The prospect of boredom terrifies us because it means we have to be alone with ourselves. Our anxiety over boredom, he said, isn't about not being able to find things to do. It's about the dread that we may have to face ourselves.

And with that, the discussion about boredom migrates from neuroscience to philosophy, specifically to a discussion begun by Søren Kierkegaard and taken up by existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger.

These thinkers are infamous for their rap about anxiety and angst. But they also discussed boredom - ennui, acedia - at length.

"Boredom, like anxiety, brings you face to face with the world without any distractions," said philosopher John D. Caputo, whose books include How to Read Kierkegaard and What Would Jesus Deconstruct? "And that is an opportunity to think, mull things over, and really ask about how you live your life."

Caputo, who has taught at Villanova and Syracuse Universities, said "the flight from boredom robs you of your ability to think about things in a more elemental way. It cuts you off from matters of ultimate concern."

As Kierkegaard put it, "boredom is the root of all evil - the despairing refusal to be oneself."

For Kierkegaard, the way out is a commitment to a cause greater than oneself, whether it be political, ethical, or religious. The Danish philosopher believed the modern age is robbing us of the ability to be passionate about anything that transcends ourselves.

That seems borne out by the research, said neuroscientist Danckert.

"One study about levels of religiosity concluded that . . . religious persons are far less bored than atheists," he said.

UCLA's David Cohen, who has edited several social science books including Critical New Perspectives on ADHD (Routledge), said the issue is obvious. "People are bored when they have no purpose and no passion."

Could it be that boredom is a moral issue after all?

215-854-2736