All of us have bad habits. Occasionally, we feel guilty about them. But some bad habits—at least when carried out in moderation—might actually benefit our psychological or physical well-being. Most bad habits alter our mood state and reduce stress (at least in the very short-term) but tend to become less helpful, the more we engage in them. Some of these bad habits turn into addictions, with the short-term benefits outweighing the long-term costs.
But here are 10 common “flaws” that could be helpful:
1. Fidgeting: Helps burn calories.
While fidgeting might be annoying for individuals and those around them, it expends energy and burns calories. Fidgeting is one of a number of activities (along with walking, gardening, typing, tidying up, etc.) that are known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). In basic terms, NEAT is any activity that is not eating, sleeping, or sporting exercise. A number of studies carried out by obesity expert James Levine at the Mayo Clinic have shown that individuals who fidget burn up about 350 kcal a day. This is because fidgeting speeds up an individual’s metabolism by stimulating neurochemicals in the body, thus increasing the ability to convert body fat into energy. So, if you are a compulsive foot tapper, an excessive thumb twiddler, or a restless doodler, remember: All of these activities burn calories.
2. Chewing gum: Helps boost thinking and alertness.
Watching people chew gum is not a pretty sight, but if English football managers are anything to go by, chewing gum appears to be a stress relieving activity. In fact, there appear to be many cognitive benefits. In the book Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders, Kin-ya Kubo and colleagues noted that chewing gum immediately before performing a cognitive task increases blood oxygen levels in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus—important brain structures involved in learning andmemory—thereby improving task performance. Kubo argues that chewing gum may be a simple, drug-free method of helping those with senile dementia and stress-related disorders often associated with cognitive dysfunction. Another study by Yoshiyuki Hirano and colleagues showed that chewing gum boosts thinking and alertness, and that reaction times among chewers were 10% faster than for non-chewers. The research team also reported that up to eight areas of the brain are affected by chewing—most notably, the areas concerning attention and movement. As Andy Smith of Cardiff University neatly summed up: “The effects of chewing on reaction time are profound. Perhaps football managers arrived at the idea of chewing gum by accident, but they seem to be on the right track.”
3. Playing video games: Helps relieve pain.
Many individuals who do not play video games view the activity as a potentially addictive waste of time. While excessive play may cause problems for a minority of individuals, there is much scientific evidence that playing video games can have beneficial effects. A number of studies have shown that children with cancer who play video games after chemotherapy take less pain-killing medication. Video games have also been used as a pain-relieving therapy for burns victims and individuals with back pain. Playing video games is an engaging, engrossing activity, distracting the player from anything else—what psychologists refer to as a “cognitive distractor task.” Pain has a large psychological component; individuals experience less if they are engaged in an activity that consumes all of their cognitive mind space. There are also many studies showing that playing video games increases hand-eye coordination and reaction times, and that games can deliver educational learning benefits.
4. Eating snot: Helps strengthen the immune system (maybe).
What do you feel when you see someone picking their nose and then eating what they have found? Disgust? Contempt? Amusement? In 2008, Friedrich Bischinger, an Austrian lung specialist, claimed that it was good for you. He claimed that people who pick their noses were healthy, happier, and probably better in tune with their bodies than those who didn’t, and that eating the dry remains of what you pull out of your nose is a great way to strengthen the immune system. He explained that the nose is a filter in which a great deal of bacteria are collected, and when this mixture arrives in the intestines it works like medicine. “People who pick their nose and eat it,” he said, “get a natural boost to their immune system for free. I would recommend a new approach where children are encouraged to pick their nose. It is a completely natural response and medically a good idea as well.” (He went on to suggest that if individuals could do it privately.) This view is also shared by biochemist Scott Napper of the University of Saskatchewan. He theorized that hygiene improvement has led to an increase in allergies and autoimmune disorders and that eating snot may boost the immune system by ingesting small and harmless amounts of germs into the body. The same theory has also been applied to biting fingernails—again because the activity introduces germs directly into one’s orifices.
5. Daydreaming: Helps problem solving.
Daydreaming can occupy up to a third of our waking lives and is often viewed as a sign of laziness, inattentiveness, or procrastination. However, research has shown that the “executive network” in our brain is highly active when we daydream. A study by Kalina Christoff and colleagues, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found activity in numerous brain regions while daydreaming, including areas associated with complex problem solving. These regions were more active during a daydream than during routine tasks. It is believed that when an individual uses conscious thought they can become too rigid and limited in their thinking. The findings suggest that daydreaming is an important cognitive state in which individuals turn their attention from immediate tasks to unconsciously think about problems in their lives. “When you daydream,” Christoff says, “you may not be achieving your immediate goal—say, reading a book or paying attention in class—but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships.” In addition, Eric Klinger of the University of Minnesota has argued that daydreaming also serves an evolutionary purpose: When individuals are engaged on one task, daydreaming can trigger reminders of other, concurrent goals so that they do not lose sight of them.
6. Swearing: Helps reduce pain and relieve work stress.
Although swearing has become increasingly commonplace, most people would still agree that it’s a bad habit. However, research has shown that swearing can help alleviate pain. In an study led by Richard Stephens of Keele University (UK) and published inNeuroreport, results showed that individuals who swore (as compared to individuals that didn’t) could endure the pain of putting their hand in a bucket of ice-cold water nearly 50% longer (nearly two minutes for those that swore compared to 1:15 for those that said a neutral, non-swear word instead). Stephens thought of the idea for the study after accidentally hitting his thumb with a hammer while building a garden shed and realizing that simultaneous swearing appeared to help reduce the pain. The researchers speculated that swearing might trigger our natural “fight-or-flight” response by downplaying a weakness or threat in order to deal with it. However, there appears to be a caveat: Swearing may only be effective in helping reduce pain if it is a casual habit. Stephens cautioned that swearing is emotional language but if individuals overuse it, it loses its emotional attachment, and is less likely to help alleviate pain. Research published in the Leadership and Organization Development Journal by Yehuda Baruch of the University of East Anglia found that regular swearing expressed and reinforced solidarity among staff members. The acts of profanity enabled employees to express feelings such as frustration and develop social relationships.
7. Being messy: Helps boost creativity.
A messy work desk or bedroom is often perceived as a sign of being disorganized. However, recent research published in Psychological Science by Kathleen Vohs and colleagues at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, suggests that being messy can boost creativity. Vohs and her team carried out a number of experiments for the paper, “Physical order produces healthy choices, generosity, and conventionality, whereas disorder produces creativity.” In one experiment, 48 participants were assigned to either a messy or tidy room. Participants were asked to think up as many uses for ping pong balls as they could and to write them down. Independent judges then rated the participants’ answers for degree of creativity. Results showed that participants in both tidy and messy rooms produced the same number of ideas, but those generating ideas in the messy room were more creative. Those in the messy room were (on average) 28% more creative and five times more likely to produce “highly creative” ideas. Vohs concluded that messiness and creativity are strongly correlated, and that “while cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.”
8. Having a lie-in: Helps reduce heart attacks and strokes.
While the old proverb, “The early bird catches the worm,” might be true, the saying, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wise,” may not be. According to Mayuko Kadono of the Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine, getting up too early in the morning may have serious health consequences. Kadono has led a number of studies on sleep and its relationship with health. In one study of 3,017 healthy adults, it was reported that individuals getting up before 5 a.m. and engaging in vigorous exercise have a 1.7 times greater risk of high blood pressure, and were twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease, as those who got up two-to-three hours later. The number of hours slept did not make a difference, only the time of getting up. Kadono said the results were “contrary to the commonly held belief that early birds are in better health. We need to find what the causes of this are, and whether exercising after waking early is beneficial.” A study by researchers at Stanford found that the most restorative sleep occurs between 2:00 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. More general research has found that getting enough sleep can help individuals’ reduce their stress and boost their memory. In short, it’s better to wake up when your body feels ready (i.e., aligning with your body’s natural circadian rhythm) rather than waking up because your alarm clock has gone off.
9. Gossiping: Helps friendships and relieves stress.
Gossiping is often perceived as malicious and untrustworthy behavior but most individuals appear to like it—particularly if it is about someone else’s misfortunes. One reason we like to hear about other people’s problems is that it makes us feel better about ourselves. And there is growing psychological research that gossiping may actually have positive benefits: It is important in helping us bond with other people, promoting cooperation,friendship, and learning about cultural norms. These consequences of gossip make us feel good, helping us relieve stress, tension, and anxiety. In a recent study published in the Psychological Science by Matthew Feinberg of Stanford University and colleagues, it was reported that gossip and ostracism can have positive effects within group situations. According to Feinberg, “Groups that allow their members to gossip sustain cooperation and deter selfishness better than those that don’t. And groups do even better if they can gossip and ostracize untrustworthy members. While both of these behaviors can be misused, [the] findings suggest that they also serve very important functions for groups and society.” Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of Oxford notes that because language is principally used for the exchange of social information and that such topics are so overwhelmingly important, “Gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible.”
10. Burping and farting: Help relieve bloating and stomach pain.
Both activities are a normal part of the body digestion process, both help release unwanted gas that builds up inside the stomach, and both are vital for good gastric health. Farting is particularly beneficial for relieving bloating; preventing oneself from breaking wind can be incredibly painful. Nick Read, a British gastroenterologist, warns, “If you don’t belch and the gas stays on the stomach, this can cause the valve that separates the gullet and the stomach to relax, allowing stomach acid to splash up into the gullet, triggering heartburn.” As for farting, “We evacuate wind for a reason—it forms in the bowel and we need to get rid of it. Holding it back can also trigger pain. A colleague used to call it Metropolitan Railway Syndrome—all these commuters suffered pain and bloating because they were too embarrassed to break wind on public transport.” All this leads to the conclusion that it’s the act of not burping or farting that should be considered bad habits. As I was often told by one of my aunts: “It’s better out than in.”
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