December 31, 2023

Facing Up To Boredom -- And Then Facing It Down

Facing Up To Boredom -- And Then Facing It Down

I have never been good at tolerating complaints about boredom. Just saying the word sounded spoiled and entitled and something I could never stomach. So, I suppose it was only natural that when I decided to retire, I didn’t get bothered about needing to manage more time on my hands.

But that’s not what many other retired or soon-to-be retired people think. Do a quick search, and you’ll find article after article reporting that boredom is one of the biggest objections to retirement. Surprisingly, some people dread the thought of twiddling their thumbs so much that they prefer to avoid retirement altogether. It all seems ironic — isn’t the whole idea to free up time so you can use it in new and improved ways?

At least that notion was exciting to me. Some occasional unoccupied time seemed like a minor trade-off for a chance to reinvent myself. Early in my life, my mother taught me that boredom was an escapable circumstance that only lingered with too much expectation and not enough effort. Back then, all I needed for relief was a curious mind, a little inspiration, and some determination. I can still recall one rainy Saturday when I mastered a complicated cheesecake recipe I’d spotted on the back of the cornstarch box. Or one summer, when I became absorbed for weeks in a Learn-to-Play-the-Piano book I’d unearthed from the piano bench.

Even with that upbringing, I found myself bored early in my retirement. I’m not talking here about relaxation and quiet time, but times when you’re itching to do something worthwhile but don’t know what that could be. I didn’t know what to call it — boredom wasn’t something I’d been familiar with after childhood except for the occasional yawn during a drawn-out conversation or sitting through nine innings of a blowout baseball game. I felt at a standstill, like a misfit wind-up toy without its wind-up key, and quickly got buried under an avalanche of negative reactions from confusion to impatience and frustration to despair and back again.

I wondered if there was a more complex adult version since boredom can have different definitions. It’s often defined as feeling uninterested, unhappy, or unsure about what you want to do, with the common denominator being the desire to be engaged in something. It’s about either not wanting to do what you’re doing or not doing enough and being frozen and uncertain about what you do want to do. Turns out boredom was a signal something was missing: an empty space asking me to fill it.

Having more time to spend with myself helped me learn that certain things don’t change when you retire — needs for accomplishment, contribution, learning, and expression — and that was the kind of engagement I was seeking. Even though the space was now deeper to fill than when I was a child, the way out was the same. I started narrowing down my options to focus on what could fill the gaps craving attention. And I tried things rather than dwelling on how I could have done this better sooner.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I was bored. Saying you’re not busy enough seems like a failure and even demoralizing, especially with busyness almost synonymous with significance these days. Am I the only one who dislikes those stories about the “perfect” retiree, the one who’s “busier than ever!” But being busy isn’t what it’s about — I can always find something to do; it’s about doing what fills me up.

Writing about my retirement clicked and gave me the direction I was looking for, and I keep adding to what interests me, even without owning an ambitious bucket list. From what I’ve learned, maybe the best defense against any fear of boredom is to be aware it can show up after you leave your career and not overreact to it; it disappears as soon as you start looking for ways out. There are a few other true things that help me: just getting up can be a quick cure for any slowdown — I like walking, and changing locations always changes me. I set goals, even small ones, rather than counting on the day to naturally engage me (as it did when I was working). I don’t just wait for ideas to come to me — I go after them. And while it's good to look for inspiration and let your mind wander, I take action too – it's action that creates momentum.

It turned out that boredom isn’t merely an objectionable grumble of the pampered: it’s something to understand. Boredom tells us something about ourselves. Listen to what it’s telling you. Boredom can be an essential trigger to changing your life and finding contentment.

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Photo by Blake Meyer on Unsplash