In Retirement, Boredom Has its Place

Have modern retirees fallen pray to the “busy ethic”? In 1986 David Ekerdt observed people carrying the western idea of the work ethic – the virtuousness of being industrious and productive – into retirement. Read any book about retirement and we’re told we need to have a plan in order to stay active and engaged in our post-employment life. My partner, Bonnie’s plan was to see how far she could push her art skills. Some people choose to volunteer, to give back to their community, others, to look after grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And then there are those who decide this would be a good time of life to train for their first marathon.

According to Ekerdt when we are called upon to account for our lives as retirees, those of us still caught up in the vestiges of the work ethic will ensure other people know we’re actively involved in ‘doing things’. “In honoring the busy ethic,” he says, “exactly what one does to keep busy is secondary to the fact that one purportedly is busy.”1

In a recent article for The BBC (http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170719-how-moments-of-boredom-help-us-achieve-more) Vivian Giang investigates the positive impact of boredom on creativity. She writes “The wealthiest among us work longer hours while being busy has become a status symbol and a mark of prestige. Boredom and idleness, by contrast, are for the underachievers, the lazy, the loafers. It is something associated with mental dullness and lacking in aim or purpose.” Echoes of Ekerdt. How often have you asked a retired friend what he or she is doing? And how often have you heard, “I’ve never been busier. I don’t know how I had time to go to work.”

I fell into the busyness ethic immediately on retirement. We traveled, I took up yoga and walking and I started a freelance writing career with some serious beginner’s luck in the first few years. But that was followed by a huge dose of “I-don’t-really-know-what-the-hell-I’m-doing-and-everyone-in-the-publishing-industry-knows-it” reality. Six years into retirement, I felt like a loser, an underachiever. All around me, people were happily getting on with their retirements. Bonnie was painting up a storm, an oenophile friend worked part-time in a winery conducting tastings and wine tours, my sister was babysitting her grandchildren.

For me, boredom was not an option. Filling time was the solution. Endless hours of television, more walking, more yoga, more shopping, more coffee with friends. More, more, more. The fear of being alone with my thoughts or letting my mind wander terrified me. What truths might those uncontrolled thoughts reveal?

Giang points to studies in which MRI brain scans have shown “the connections between different parts of our brains increase when we are daydreaming compared to during focused thought.” As her research suggests, had I been braver, allowed myself to daydream, reduced the noise in my brain and the busyness of distraction, I might have been able to free up the creativity necessary to rekindle my desire to write as well as my success.

If, as the studies Giang references are correct and boredom or reducing the noise in our brains increases creativity, how might we think about the activities we have taken on in retirement? How might we think differently about things we’ve read or heard? Why don’t we turn off the phone, the radio, the TV and the computer, sprawl on the couch and daydream more often? Or go for a walk – not a power walk, not plugged into our favourite podcast – and let our minds idle?

Physical fitness is key to longevity, so we’re told. And I see many seniors working out faithfully. Doing repetitive exercises could be the perfect time to let our minds wander. But far from giving our minds a quiet space to wander, we’re watching the television, listening to music pumped through the gym or on our personal headsets. The way we’re keeping our bodies in shape, is adding noise and distraction to the brain.

The aging brain loses its plasticity. Keeping it agile by taking up a foreign language, practicing a musical instrument, creating works of art won’t stop the inevitable, but can help slow the process. Reading Giang’s article, I wonder if encouraging boredom in our lives, freeing our brains to make random connections can have a similar effect.

Honestly, it took two grueling years, back at university learning how to write creative non-fiction, before I allowed myself to entertain the idea of boredom as a good thing. I’m writing again, sending off pitches. Sometimes my work gets rejected and sometimes it’s accepted. Overall, my head is in a better place.

Now, I’m going to try doing nothing. It will be tough. But to start my “boredom” practice, I’m going to walk without earphones, giving my brain some downtime, allowing it to go where it wants to go. I will have to hide my iPod and leave my phone at home. I don’t know how successful I’ll be. I’ll let you know.


  1. Harry R. Moody, Aging Concepts And Controversies, Fifth Edition. 
Pine Forge Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2006 p. 256




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