Bones or No Bones? Psychiatrists Explain Why We Love Noodle the Pug

Jay Lankau

December 01, 2021

Every morning, millions of people around the world tune in to Jonathan Graziano's TikTok account to find out what kind of day they'll have. The way this news is determined isn't by the stars or the moon or numerology, but by a 13-year-old pug named Noodle.

Graziano adopted Noodle back in 2016 after the dog's original owner could no longer care for him. Though the pair participated in variations of the "Bones or No Bones?" game, it wasn't shared with the online world until August of this year.

The ritual begins every morning when the pup is at his sleepiest. Graziano lovingly props up the dog, who, if he has enough energy to remain upright on his own, is determined to "have bones." If the sweet hand of sleep is too strong to fight and Noodle plops back down in his bed, then he "has no bones." The tradition remains to this day, where every morning is revealed to be either a Bones Day or a No Bones Day. But what does that really mean?

"A Bones Day is a day when you have to get up and go!" Graziano told Medscape Medical News. "Whether it's to pursue a goal or just get chores done, a Bones Day is one for productivity, whereas a No Bones day is more about taking it easy and being kind to yourself."

Sure, the message is great, and Noodle is precious, but why did this go viral? What attracts 4.5 million people to Jonathan and Noodle's TikTok page every day?

Turns out, the answer to this question has layers. Jessica Griffin, PsyD, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, explains that one part of why everyone loves Noodle is the predictability of the "No Bones" content.

"I think now more than ever, people are attracted to Noodle and this idea of Bones or No Bones because it's something predictable," Griffin says. "That predictability over time becomes comforting."

Noodle, the 13-year-old rescue pug and TikTok celebrity

While this explains why people are drawn to horoscopes in general, there's more going on here. According to Griffin, Graziano's and Noodle's videos are helping to normalize the idea of rest and encourage self-care. In a society that is very hard-driving and fast-paced, it can be difficult for someone to know when to rest and to be okay with taking that time off. Noodle gives people a reason to take a break or slow down, and those identifiable phrases "Bones" and "No Bones" give names to feelings that can be hard to explain.

Griffin says, "Noodle is putting language to 'feeling states' that are hard for people to identify in themselves or acknowledge, especially when, in our society, quitting is seen as a failure."

The fact that Graziano's and Noodle's rise to online stardom comes at a time of great unrest isn't a coincidence. What started as a fun game quickly turned into a conversation about mental health. "It just became that way naturally as more people started to follow along," Graziano says. "I didn't do any of the heavy lifting here — the internet took hold of this and decided what Bones and No Bones days meant. I always said things for fun, but as it's gotten more popular, mindfulness has become a huge part of it."

Since the pandemic began, many people have switched to working from home where they are essentially available 24/7. The stress of learning to work in new environments and having a disrupted schedule is compounded by the anxiety and fear of the pandemic itself. Twenty months later, burnout is bound to happen and all of the techniques we would use to cope with burnout normally are less feasible because of the pandemic.

"Fixing burnout is more than just the self-care piece; it's also caring for others and others caring for you," Griffin explained of her recent studies into burnout. "It comes down to connection and connecting to people in your circle of trust, or even people outside of it. What happened in the pandemic is that a lot of that was taken away from us. The biological need to connect with other people was hampered and we saw the impact of that on everyone's mental health."

Even with Noodle close by at all times, Graziano isn't immune to feelings of melancholy. In his words, "The world is in shambles right now."

"I can't turn on the news or open Twitter without being completely devastated by everything going on," he says. "It's more important now than ever before — at least, in my lifetime — that we take care of ourselves however we best know how."  

The Bones or No Bones trend is about more than a rescue pug (though we do love him); its nature is telling about the era we're living in, and it has a history that can't be separated from it.

Amy Harrington, MD, is the medical director of ambulatory psychiatry and assistant professor for the Department of Psychiatry at U-Mass Med School. Of the pandemic effects, and how trends like No Bones helps alleviate them, she says: "One of the challenges has been just how long this pandemic has significantly disrupted our lives. When I was watching Noodle's videos, I was reminded of being in the early days of the pandemic when we were all stuck in our homes, trying to entertain ourselves. There was a sense of camaraderie as we shared videos of our pets from inside our homes."

Here, Noodle takes his own advice and rests on a No Bones day.

Reliability, burnout, and self-care are all part of Noodle's narrative. People are attracted to these videos and their kind messages because they give people permission to rest and take a break on days when things are hard, and to celebrate when things are good. Twenty months of a global pandemic can feel terribly disheartening but Noodle, and the ideas of rest surrounding the messages of his videos, can help people start that conversation about mental health at a time when it is especially crucial.

"We need to reach out to others and stay connected," Harrington says. "We should use tools and technology to create work situations that are conducive to both the employee and the employer. We can set boundaries in order to protect the time we set aside to nurture our interests and creativity."

On our Bones days, we celebrate the work we put in; we have energy, we might splurge on something we've always wanted, we make plans. On our No Bones days, well, Graziano says it best: "Be kind to yourself today. Get out the jade roller, bust out the heated blanket — what a day for a heated blanket! Build a fire! Just do something nice for yourself, and have a great day."

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