I recently wrote that people may feel bored in retirement simply because they are overwhelmed by the unlimited number of choices they now face. Immobilized by fear of choosing the wrong thing, they choose nothing at all and wind up bored.
But there is another culprit responsible for boredom in retirement: hedonic adaptation. Maybe you never experienced boredom when you first retired. Maybe you basked in the freedom to go to the movies in the middle of the day or linger over lunch with a friend. Maybe you relished the general absence of hurrying. But at some point, the novelty wore off. Even though you’re doing those same things that used to make you happy, they just don’t seem to make you happy anymore. Now they are just normal.
Hedonic adaptation is that phenomenon that eventually brings you back to earth after experiencing a positive life change like winning the lottery, getting married, or retiring. After an initial period of euphoria, you eventually get used to your newfound riches of money, love, or time, and return to the level of happiness you enjoyed before the positive event.
Yesterday’s New York Times had a great article about how hedonic adaptation applies to love and marriage. According to the article, we are “biologically hard-wired to crave variety. Variety and novelty affect the brain in much the same way that drugs do — that is, they trigger activity that involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, as do pharmacological highs.”
So how do you recapture the high that you enjoyed right after you retired? Well, you’re going to have to change it up a bit. The same old same old isn’t going to cut it. You’ve got to introduce some variety, and for those that are going to be retired for decades, you’re going to have to do this over and over again.
The key is to balance what makes you feel good with what makes you feel good about yourself.
I recently volunteered to join the finance committee of an educational non-profit in my community. It’s a novel experience for me and I’m kind of learning as I go along. But I'm getting a charge from meeting new people and from being part of something that is doing such great work to help kids and their teachers. On the days that I’m engaged with the group, I feel good about myself.
I’ve also gotten back into my yoga routine. While you might think this is an activity that feels good, it doesn’t feel good until it’s over. It would only be a slight exaggeration to equate it to torture. Bikram Yoga is practiced in an extremely hot studio and the 26 poses are very challenging. I find myself constantly negotiating the line between working hard enough to get the benefits, but not so hard that I throw up. On days that I go to yoga, I feel good about myself.
And while housework and yard work are not really activities that make me feel good, I sure do feel good about myself when I manage to tackle a little bit each day.
It’s not just about finding new things that make you feel good. Taking a nap in the middle of the day, enjoying lunch with a friend, or reading a good book--these are all things that make you feel good. They contribute to your hedonic well-being. But to get that retirement high back, you're also going to have to include things that contribute to your eudaimonic well-being. That’s why my favorite days in retirement have been the ones where I find the perfect balance between activities that make me feel good, and activities that make me feel good about myself.
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