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Impatience: Why we don't want to wait, and what we can do about it

Impatience: Why we don't want to wait
Impatience: Why we don't want to wait 07:08

As evidenced by pictures of Americans from all across the country, wherever you vote this year, there is a good chance you need to be ready to wait.

Waiting at the polls, at the grocery store, and in traffic, Americans are weary of waiting in today's exasperating times. However, even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, we spent an estimated two years of our entire lives waiting in lines. 

With COVID-19 cases rising, it is fair to say many people can't wait for things to get back to "normal." But as Barry Petersen found out, impatience may be more harmful than some would expect.

"You know, there was an interesting study where they gave people the choice to sit alone and get bored, or give themselves painful electric shock. And about 70% of men chose to give themselves painful electric shocks versus sit alone and get bored," researcher Amit Sood said. "People do not like to be controlled. People do not like uncertainty."

Dr. Amit Sood founded a department that researches impatience at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, he spoke to Petersen about why humans "don't like to get bored."

As he explained, people are "designed to be impatient."

"When little babies are born, they don't just wait for you to clean their diapers, you know? They cry," Sood said. "When was the last time you really preferred a slow elevator, or you loved, you know, slow internet connection?"

It turns out, how we handle ourselves in these uncertain times comes at a price. 

Impatience is not simply the opposite of patience, Sood explained. Rather, the absence of patience brings anxiety, illness, injury, loneliness — and even death.

"An episode of explosive anger, stress or impatience can increase your risk of heart attack and sudden death by two to eightfold for the next few hours," he said.

Impatience, or a lack of patience, can even have a long-term effect on one's DNA.

"If we were to take your blood sample and measure your... telomeres, which are at the end of chromosomes, the shorter they are, the smaller they are, the older you are. And people who are impatient have shorter telomeres," Sood said.

Stress is another negative emotion related to impatience. To see its effect on the average American, Petersen took the Mayo Clinic stress test, which is designed to simulate the stress of everyday life. 

The test includes activities such as squeezing a grip, and submerging a hand in ice-cold water for three minutes. 

Petersen's results showed dramatically higher blood pressure and changes to the heartbeat.

Dr. Michael Joyner, who oversaw his test, explained that Petersen's "big rise" in blood pressure was tied to being in "imposed situations, where you weren't in control."

Joyner agreed when Petersen compared it to the feeling of "being on the phone trying to get customer service... where you feel like you're endlessly waiting."

He said it could "absolutely" have the same effect on one's body.

"People have a very hard time understanding what they do and don't have control over," Joyner said.

While one might be inclined to feel like the world is out of control, especially at the current time, Dr. Sood said it was important to remember the ability to control oneself. 

"If you choose to be patient, you are helping yourself. You're living longer and happier. And you're helping your loved ones. Being patient is a choice," he said.

Another word Sood said would help us through the pandemic: Resilience. 

"You do not have any bullets, you do not have any swords. You can't fist-fight with this virus," he explained. "You can empower your billions of immune cells to fight with this virus. And when you are resilient, your immune cells are stronger in waging that war."

Boosting resilience could be as easy as a walk in the park — something writer Florence Williams proved to be a literal reality. 

"The science is pretty clear on this," Williams explained. "Even after just 15 minutes of walking in a green space or a park, our blood pressure drops a little bit, our heart rate slows down, and even our stress hormones like cortisol lower."

Williams traveled the world writing about how nature can help us master impatience and make us healthier. She said there are "many elements" of nature that people respond to.

"It boosts our moods very dramatically," she added.

It is not surprising that the frustration of lockdowns quickly gave way to people flooding the outdoors when they could. People like psychologist Jane West took it to new lengths with the Japanese-invented practice of "forest bathing."

Forest bathing is essentially hiking in slow motion. "The benefit of slowing down is that your life isn't passing you by," West said.

West, who leads forest bathing sessions in the Colorado Rockies, said being in a forest and its "wonderful smells" allows people to "be lost in this moment as if nothing else exists."

"I know that's so hard to find these days," she said. "But it is doable, it's reachable — and I do this because it gives me those moments."

While the pandemic may not be ending anytime in the near future, Dr. Sood insists we can turn our impatience to good use, if we really want to:

"There is tremendous opportunity during this pandemic to rise because of it."

Story produced by Robbyn McFadden. Editor: Carol A. Ross. 

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