sabbatical boredom

On the Eight Stages of Sabbaticals — Part 5

sabbaticalSo far, through my adult life, I’ve made exactly seventeen physical moves from one city to another, spanning five countries. I’ve done all of these on my own, moving lock, stock, and barrel, buying and selling homes along the way. I mention this not as a matter of pride but as a matter of, for the longest time, perennial personal consternation. Why did I do it? It wasn’t exactly pleasure or excitement that drove me because these moves have been both physically and emotionally draining and the stress has lasted, often, several months into a move. Having studied it for some time, I’ve concluded that the root cause was a kind of boredom.

A similar boredom hit me hard during Sabbatical Stage 2:  Cruising — where things should have been settling in and going well. It was one of the major turbulence factors that affected my desired pace, vector, and acceleration.

You’re probably wondering why boredom comes into play during a sabbatical when we are engaging in the very activities that are of deep interest to us. There are several different root causes of boredom. One of the key studies on boredom has shown the following key conditions that lead to people feeling bored.

First, people need to have a reasonable level of psychological energy or arousal to feel bored. When people have low arousal and there is not much happening in the world, then they often feel relaxed. When they have high arousal, though, they have energy they would like to devote to something, but they cannot find anything engaging.

We can safely say that most people, during this particular stage of their sabbatical, will have this level of psychological energy invested in their efforts. And, unless this energy is fully and appropriately harnessed, there is potential room for boredom to creep in.

Second, boredom typically occurs when people have trouble focusing their attention and they believe the reason for this difficulty is in the environment. When sitting in the airport, for example, there is probably a lot going on. There are people having conversations that you could listen to. You probably have something to read.  There may be televisions showing the news. But, the stress of waiting for a delayed flight often makes it hard to concentrate, and so your mind jumps from one thing to another. You assume that this is caused by the environment, and so you feel boredom.

This is another common symptom when we’re engaged in any activity that requires time and effort to achieve desired results. There is, always, the stress of waiting for those results to start showing even as our need for gratification keeps growing more insistent.

(Third), boredom often occurs when you have little control over your situation. Waiting rooms, lectures, and airline gates are all places where you have little control over your situation. Normally, we react to unpleasant situations by changing the situation. If you don’t like a book you are reading, for example, you close it and do something else. Boredom happens when you are unable to change the situation.

sabbatical boredom

Lack of complete control is a common problem in many of the important ventures we undertake. More so, during this particular stage of our sabbatical, as it is not possible to change course easily enough. We’re already cruising at a certain speed and altitude, headed in a certain direction.

Now, the most pernicious effects of boredom are that the associated stress makes us look negatively at the activity / interest, while also impairing our performance / engagement with it. Soon enough, the sabbatical turns into something very different from the joyous self-actualization that we might have imagined or expected it to be.

For me, boredom set in during this stage because I had moved from a high-stimulus working environment to a relatively lower stimulus one. And, it led me to start questioning my entire sabbatical journey, wondering if I’d done it all wrong, and so on.

People who report themselves being ‘bored’ actually have higher levels of brain activity in the areas responsible for autobiographical memory, thinking of hypothetical events and thinking about others.

What I learned, though, is that boredom, too, has a purpose. And, it is by carefully understanding what our particular sense of boredom is telling us about, first, ourselves and, second, how we’re engaging with the world around us, that we can truly address it.

What might the purpose of feeling bored be? Well, to keep us moving, of course, and to keep us examining and thinking and challenging ourselves. A feeling of boredom might be what pushed primitive man to explore and to spread across the continents, to experiment with rubbing sticks together and thus create fire and, generally, to create many of the luxuries that we take for granted today. That increased activity in the regions responsible for hypothetical thinking might just have allowed us to hypothesize new and more efficient ways of living.

So, let’s not fear boredom. I’d go so far as to say that, if we’re not experiencing boredom at some point or another in this journey, then we’re likely too relaxed. And, that’s no good because it indicates that we haven’t picked meaningful, stimulating, engagement-worthy activities / interests to begin with.

Our brains actually need stimulation and they especially need novelty. This is what allows our brains to maintain their plasticity and flexibility, it encourages neurogenesis (the birth of new brain cells) and without it atrophy will increase. Use it or lose it… Of course there is also such thing as too much stimulation – the aim is to find that optimum balance between stimulation and calm that is unique to each of us. Find this point and that way you can avoid stress and enjoy relaxation, but at the same time keep yourself stimulated and focussed.

sabbatical stress

That said, we do need to understand our boredom and the stress that it creates. My biggest aha moment here was to figure out how to make stress my friend, as Kelly McGonigal has said about the science of the hormones our bodies release when we’re stressed. In addition to the more well-known adrenalin and cortisol hormones, our bodies also release oxytocin.

But here’s what most people don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up.

That’s what hit me. All this time, I was being the brave loner, going it on my own, figuring things out, telling myself that the hard stuff was half the fun. And, all the while, I wasn’t realizing that, though I had plenty of intrinsic motivation, I needed an extrinsic support system as well.

And the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support. So when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.

I found this social contact and support from the oddest (for me) source: Facebook Groups. Given that I’d joined Facebook after most of my friends, in 2012, and hardly been active till 2015, I was pleasantly surprised to find some much-needed encouragement and inspiration here.

The reasons were this were twofold. First, I was not surrounded physically by people who shared my interests or engaged in the kind of work I was doing during my sabbatical (writing and Yoga). So, finding my “tribe” virtually was the only option. Second, I needed objective neutrality and positive reinforcement, which the people that I am physically surrounded by, my family members, were not offering (quite the contrary, really).

The other huge benefit has been that being part of such helpful social support networks has allowed me to also give back, increasing my own resilience.

[Side-note: Facebook Groups is a feature of the social networking site that still needs a lot of UI and UX improvements. But, they’re still better than many others online groups out there — at least for my specific interests. It will take some trial and error to find the right kind of group with the sort of vibe and people that you’re comfortable with. Take your time, join them, lurk a bit before deciding if you’d like to jump in too.]


During this stage of a sabbatical journey, stress can set in, causing turbulence. Generally, such stress comes from boredom, which is more about not being able to engage more effectively with our chosen activity / interest or be sufficiently stimulated by it. Rather than letting this boredom get the better of us or abandoning our journey, it is important to understand its specific root causes and deal with the associated stress. The most effective way to manage this stress is through connecting with support networks that will not only help with positive reinforcement, information, and objective neutrality, but also allow us to give back in mind, thus increasing our overall resilience.

Next time, we’ll get into Stage 3: Preparation for Landing — As with all journeys, preparing for a smooth wheels-on-ground requires various checks and a revisit to the financial, logistical and relational steps of Stage -1, but from a slightly different angle.


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