How to Know if You’ll be Happy in Retirement
Written by Russell Johnson
Do you actually WANT to retire?
Unfortunately, most people don’t give this question the level of consideration it deserves. For some, retirement works well. But for others, it’s a significant mistake. Too often, its destructive consequences play out over decades.
Let me be clear that I’m not speaking of retiring from a health-destroying role as a hapless cog in a heartless machine. Who WOULDN’T want to retire from such a position, if retirement was the only alternative?
But the natural replacement for such a role is not retirement. Instead, it’s a health- and life-enhancing, fulfilling role, contributing to a better future for others.
If you don’t love your career, that’s a problem that deserves to be addressed by finding one you love. Retirement is not the solution to that problem.
Why? Because through mastering problems, we strengthen ourselves, enrich our lives, and can enhance the lives of others too.
And we double our benefits when we enhance the lives of others. What goes around, comes around.
What About Retiring From a Career You Love?
So the question is really about retiring from a meaningful, fulfilling career. One that you love.
If you have such a career, or if you were to develop one, would you still be eager to retire?
Begin With a Reality Check
Deferred gratification has its place. The prospect of rewards is what gives our goals their motivational power. But if you’re not enjoying your career, consider the price you may be paying by treating retirement as the reward for years of unfulfilling toil:
- You can of course look forward to retirement, but only if you live long enough to claim that reward. And the price you pay along the way could include the sacrifice of your health. Through excessive stress, for instance. If we spend decades of our lives like the fabled donkey chasing the carrot suspended just ahead of its nose, while our lives slip away, doesn’t that sound more like self-deception than a sensible proposition?
- The mathematics of retirement in our sixties are becoming ever more unrealistic for most of us. Lifespans are growing longer, and it’s now not unusual to have another twenty or thirty years of life after we retire. Are you ready to accept decades of living a restricted life on a reduced income?
- If you can make retirement work well financially, it’s probable that you have had a very successful career. You have probably conditioned yourself to enjoy stimulating, meaningful challenges, and found them in your work. How will retirement work for you if you need such stimulation? Will you be able to replace it with round-the-world trips, ocean cruises, river cruises etc.? Or will that sort of activity ultimately leave a void?
- Life is cyclical, and unless we die before we’ve exhausted our capacity to contribute, we’ll all eventually retire. But we’re geared through evolution and lifelong habit to thrive on relatively short cycles. Days, weeks and seasons. Not decades. Loss of this structure can lead to boredom and worse. It can foster a focus on aches and pains, and to becoming an armchair critic of society’s failings. It’s best to avoid a focus on negatives.
The Connection Between Health and Stimulating Challenges
Research has shown that continuing to work can benefit us by slowing cognitive decline. A study of nearly half a million people by French researcher Carole Dufouil of the research agency INSERM, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, found that for each additional year they worked, people reduced their risk of dementia by 3.2 percent.
In his 2011 book “The Retiring Mind: How to Make the Psychological Transition to Retirement,” Robert Delamontagne, PhD found that people with personality characteristics such as competitiveness and assertiveness found it particularly difficult to adjust to retirement. He stated, “The very attributes that make people successful in their work life often work against them in retirement”.
These points and other recent research validate the words, decades ago, of the psychotherapist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he stated, “To be sure, man’s search for meaning may arouse inner tension rather than inner equilibrium. However, precisely such tension is an indispensable prerequisite of mental health. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the struggling and striving for a worthwhile goal”.
He added, “Such widespread phenomena as depression, aggression and addiction are not understandable unless we recognize the existential vacuum underlying them. This is also true of the crises of pensioners and aging people”.
Our Need for Purpose
As Bob Carlson, a retirement expert, stated in a Forbes article in February 2019: “For most people, their purposes before retirement were defined for them. Work and careers were the major purpose and to a large extent defined people to themselves and others. Raising children also is a major purpose of pre-retirement life. These activities also provide most of social life before retirement. Most days and weeks are structured around them. All that ends with retirement.”
He continued, “It’s not often discussed, but older Americans suffer higher levels of anxiety, depression, suicide, and addiction. Senior Americans who believe they have purpose in their lives are less likely than others to develop Alzheimer’s disease or have a stroke or cardiovascular event. They’re also less likely to have chronic conditions and more likely to have above-average life spans.”
And he noted that some studies have shown a motivating purpose in life to be more important to good health than exercise and good nutrition.
In the same article, he also commented: “Develop a plan for how you’re going to spend all that time you no longer will be working. Many people find it’s very easy to fill up the first few months with long overdue projects and plans. After that, though, there’s often a big letdown. That’s when you need your plans to establish purpose in retirement. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll figure it out once you’re retired.”
The Need for a Plan to Avoid These Traps
The risks of retirement are gradually becoming better known. Have you taken them into account? It’s best if we do it sooner rather than later, but better late than never. What matters is to know ourselves. And to recognize that planning is vital to a satisfying life in our later years.
If you are looking forward to retiring, it’s essential to develop the interests and relationships that will make your retirement fulfilling to you. If you’re not, it’s perhaps even more important to develop your plan to avoid ‘being on the scrapheap’.
Might it even be feasible to develop another path, where your purpose in your working years continues to flourish, and your later years become better, not just freer?
That will be the subject of my next article.