Many folks, especially those still working—think retirement is “living the good life.” The truth is, unless you develop a solid plan for how to enjoy your newly available time, life after retirement can be filled with bouts of boredom, anxiety and even depression.
My objective: Forewarn recent and soon-to-be retirees of the emotional dangers that lie ahead—and to suggest a road to a successful retirement.
Retirement isn’t a destination but a journey with three key stops. The first stop is the “honeymoon.” Excitement prevails. Retirees rest, go on trips, indulge in hobbies and do the things they always wanted to do. This part of the transition usually lasts about a year.
After an initial high, many retirees suffer a letdown. Retirement, as imagined, is not a permanent vacation. The second stop is “hitting the wall.” Is this all there is? Often, this phase will begin with restlessness. We start to miss the interaction with former colleagues. Boredom can begin creeping in and may even turn into sporadic depression. This is the most dangerous stop on the journey. A minority start abusing alcohol or drugs to alleviate the depression. Some may never progress beyond this second stop.
“The worst part of retirement is losing our identity. The best part is finding a new one.”
Meanwhile, the vast majority continue to the third stop—“redefinition”—where they build a new identity and develop new habits. This is the most difficult stop in the journey. A sustained effort, often involving substantial trial and error, is needed to move beyond this stop and successfully complete the journey. This can take anywhere from six months to a couple of years. Unfortunately, many fail to achieve closure and remain stuck in a traditional retirement mindset, embracing a passive lifestyle with little to look forward to each day.
How to avoid this fate? New retirees often lack direction, so they need a plan to guide how they use their time. Fortunately, a number of studies help. For instance, a recent study found that retirees’ happiness correlates with participation in active versus passive activities. Will you be a participant or a spectator? This study is reinforced by another study, which documented that happy retirees have twice as many “active” activities as unhappy retirees.
Active activities or pursuits can be either outer-directed, occurring in a social setting like volunteering, or inner-directed, such as a hobby practiced alone. Research has shown that a balance between both types is necessary for an optimal retirement. Interacting with people other than our immediate family can add as much as four years to our longevity. By contrast, loneliness can shorten life by as much as eight years. In addition, active solo activities, such as crossword or jigsaw puzzles, and hobbies, such as painting or gardening, can help us maintain our cognitive abilities.
The bottom line: Our happiness after retirement hinges on our pursuits. And the more pursuits we have, and the more diverse they are, the happier we’ll be. The worst part of retirement is losing our identity. The best part is finding a new one. I know all about this.
I retired initially at age 58, having run a successful marketing research firm in Manhattan for 25 years. I sold the firm to my junior partner and off I went. For two years, I did some consulting and taught at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. I finally packed it in at age 60.
The first year or so was great. My daughter got married. My wife and I took trips to Italy and San Diego. We also visited a number of good friends and many close relatives. And I enjoyed not commuting to Manhattan every day.
But after about 10 months, I started to become restless and bored, and subsequently slipped into depression. Thankfully, a friend suggested psychotherapy, which I underwent for six months. I consider myself lucky. Two of my fellow retirees spiraled into alcohol abuse and one into drug addiction.
After undergoing psychotherapy, it took another year or so to develop a meaningful and enjoyable direction. I’ve been assisting other seniors on a voluntary basis, first teaching computer basics and then helping retirees—those who still wish to work—to obtain jobs. More recently, I’ve been giving a presentation titled “Creating Yourself in Retirement: The Emotional Aspect” at libraries in New York and Connecticut.
Nowadays, I belong to the Retired Men’s Association (RMA) of Greenwich, which currently has 237 members and is dedicated to good fellowship, community service and fun. It’s a great organization for men to network. Activities are plentiful and I’ve developed some new friends.
It’s been 26 years since I fully retired. I’m 86 years old and my wife is 81. Although it took me a little time to get going in retirement, I now have a full schedule—and I look forward to almost every day.
This column first appeared on Humble Dollar. It was republished with permission.
Michael Amoroso, BBA, MBA, has been retired for 26 years, after previously running a highly successful marketing research firm in Manhattan. Following his retirement, he was the director of a nonprofit helping retirees, who still wish to work, to find jobs.