‘If I Didn’t Work, I’d Be Bored to Death’—Really? [Part II]
As was explained in Part I, those with “monotonous” jobs who say that not having to work and being nonemployed would “bore them to death” may actually believe that
1. such nonemployment freedom would somehow be more “monotonous” or anxiety-inducing than their jobs.
2. contrary to the perceptions of others, their jobs are not monotonous.
3. not working will cost them satisfaction of “psychological hungers”, such as “stimulation hunger”, “recognition/status hunger”, “incident hunger”, “time structure hunger” or “contact hunger”—all of which can be satisfied through workplace companionship, camaraderie and structure, as offsets to whatever monotony the job entails.
How on Earth Can Free Time Be Monotonous?
Such perceptions invite the question of how free time could possibly be “monotonous” or otherwise boring, bearing in mind that “boring” is quite often code for something entirely different, e.g., “difficult”, “tiring”, “unstructured”, “too structured” and sometimes even “scary”—like a tough calculus course and the prospect of its final exam.
Start with the strange concept of “monotonous free time”. This is so counter-intuitive, given freedom from compulsory job-like activities and freedom to do as one pleases, that it requires special treatment, before moving on to other forms of boredom, to which, by the way, it can be related.
Thinking about this commonsensically, there aren’t very many ways free time could possibly be monotonous or otherwise boring at all, not to mention more so than a truly boring job. But there are these:
- Time-rich, but resource poor circumstances: If the free time is under-resourced, e.g., with little spare cash beyond what is required to not work, the “liberated” worker may have few ways to satisfyingly structure time, beyond watching TV or going for a walk. This would be monotony induced by a lack of disposable surplus financial resources.
- Untapped free resources: If utilizing virtually free resources, such as the mind, which could learn, read, create or merely reflect, is of no interest to the worker, the risk of feeling bored and perceiving nonemployment as monotonous and boring soars. When these resources are simply lacking, the outcome is the same.
- Routine, highly structured and obligatory nonemployment activities: If the “free time” of nonemployment is only nominally so, and instead, is filled with household chores, the routines of dropping off and picking up kids from school, etc., it may indeed seem more monotonous and unsatisfying than the job left behind.
- Lack of energy: It is quite common for babies and older children to experience fatigue as boredom with whatever would otherwise engage them. Adults aren’t that much different. There are at least two different scenarios in which a lack of energy can create perceptions of boredom with nonemployment [understood as voluntary unemployment:
1. Through increasing inactivity and sedentary behavior at home, the nonemployed becomes lethargic, less energetic, less fit and increasingly unmotivated, thereby establishing a passive, unvaried lifestyle that may center on watching TV, because the energy required for engagement is lacking.
Given that outcome, the job left behind may seem less boring, if it wasn’t crushingly so.
2. The job was left as a consequence of reaching retirement age—a point in life at which many experience sags in energy, irrespective of any imminent switch to a couch-potato lifestyle.As a consequence of that increased susceptibility to fatigue, some may compare their current nonemployment energy levels with their previous energetic work style, and conclude that the job was less boring.
- Energy misallocation: Ironically, just as too little energy can generate feelings of boredom, too much energy can as well. In particular, when available, pent-up energy and enthusiasm for one activity has to be redirected to another, resistance to or compliance with doing so can be experienced as boredom and fatigue that can be called “pseudo-fatigue”. That explains the apparent paradox of workers who end their work day feeling exhausted, but who head to the gym for a workout, to a pool for a vigorous swim or immerse themselves in Sudoku.
Nonemployment can take the same toll in terms of “fatigue” and associated “boredom” induced by misallocation of abundant energy. The cases of a NASA scientist or Royal Ballet ballerina offered nonemployment without the infrastructure or funding to fully indulge their passions illustrate this phenomenon perfectly.
- Lack of interests: Some jobs take a double toll—First, they stunt passions, talents, creativity and engagement and then leave the worker unequipped to enjoy the rewards and opportunities of nonemployment, because of a lack of “interests”, be they engaging hobbies, community involvement, etc., for which there was no time, energy or inspiration while employed.
Exhausted or stunted by their over- or under-demanding jobs, they see and experience nonemployment as a frightening or boring void they don’t know how to fill.
- Lack of surprises: This is an alternative way of describing what Games People Play author and psychologist Eric Berne called “incident hunger”—hunger for the unexpected. If nonemployment takes the form of solitude, it is virtually certain that there will be fewer if any surprises at home than at almost any job, given the presence of co-workers there.
Even Canadians, who have been half-seriously described as having a “low tolerance for the unexpected”, will enjoy the little rituals of the workplace and count them as “happenings”, e.g., lunch with co-workers, laughing at lame jokes, etc., and count them as “incidents”—even by their cautious standards—that make nonemployment pale into boredom by comparison.
- Lack of Type-A purpose and goals: To “be in the zone” or in “flow” has been said to require a good skills-challenge match, resources, values and, importantly, goals. Presumably, so does immunity to boredom. Hence, when some retire and complain of the boredom of nonemployment, what they may actually be experiencing is the lack of some or all of these ingredients—most commonly voiced as a lack of “purpose”.
However, this is an oversimplification and too broad, if taken to be universally true. On the contrary, it is possible to experience full engagement, a sense of living in the moment and fulfillment by merely beholding a beautiful sunrise or playing hide-and-seek with one’s grandchild.
No real skill is required, no real challenge presented, no real goal or resources involved: Just sheer joy—in a “Type B” laid-back personality moment, as opposed to the more driven goal-seeking personality of the “Type A” individual.
For the latter, nonemployment may be experienced as “boring” because of the goal-hunger it leaves unsatisfied and the perceived misallocation of energies it is felt to involve.
The lessons in all of the concepts, illustrations and scenarios in Parts I and II of this analysis are
1. When anyone says, “If I didn’t work, I’d be bored to death”, they may mean much more than or something quite different from that, even if they mean it or if it’s figuratively, if not literally true. This is deathly boredom as a “death mask” that conceals even more than it reveals.
2. Properly managed, the “freedom from” and “freedom to” of perfect nonemployment of the kind experienced by the independently wealthy or in the full “flow” employment of a Nobel scientist or novelist, can be experienced and enjoyed by many among those who have yet to realize that.