Are You Psychologically Ready to Retire?

4 critical questions you need to ask yourself before making this decision.

Posted Jan 09, 2015

This has nothing to do with finances – I’ll leave that up to your financial planner, but the retirement decision is as much (or perhaps more) psychological than it is financial.

Let's explore the psychology behind your choice to retire (or not), and the impact it can have on your health and well-being. The key questions here are: Will you be happier retired or working? Will you be psychologically and physically healthier retired or working? Are you psychologically prepared to retire? Will you live longer if you retire?

First, there are many cultural myths about retirement.

Our grandparents grew up in the era after the introduction of social security and when retirement programs and pensions were becoming the norm in many jobs. This set the expectation that our grandparents were "working toward" retirement. The goal was to amass as much money as possible to live well during retirement. The "expected" age of retirement was 65, and the stories that got people's attention were those who were able to "beat the system" and retire at 60, 55, even 50 years of age. My brother, the dentist, "retired" in his 40s - but he works harder in his post-retirement career than ever before. It turns out that he was not an early retiree, but an unhappy dentist. He's now a very contented manager of health care systems, with no immediate plan of retiring.

So here are the questions that you should ask in order to determine if you are ready psychologically to retire:

1. Do you enjoy your job? Does it provide a sense of meaning and purpose in your life?

This is critical. Some people enjoy what they do so much that it would be unwise to retire unless you can replace that sense of meaning with some other activity or passion. A friend who had joined the Peace Corps after college, had a successful career as an executive in industry. When he retired from his corporate job, he joined a major nonprofit organization as a volunteer. Because of his passion for their mission, this has turned into a second "career" for him - in many ways, he is still that hard-working "executive," because that is who he is.

2. If your job is stressful, is it retirement you seek, or a change in careers?

My brother found dentistry stressful and unfulfilling. He's much happier in his new career. My executive friend was passionate about his job, but he is equally passionate about his volunteer career. The point is the decision to retire is about what you value. Are you a working type, or a creative leisure type? My friend Tom, retired this past year. He is an exemplar of “successful retirement.” He has always had a very active leisure life (during his non-working time, he sailed, played tennis, golfed, volunteered, and he has a large social network and a love of travel...). By every account, he is happily and healthily retired.

3. Does your job provide critical social needs in your life?

Are most of your friends work associates? Does a good part of your social life revolve around work and the people at work? If the answer is “yes,” you may want to postpone retirement until you cultivate the supportive social networks beyond your workplace friends. You can do this by joining clubs and organizations, volunteering if you have the time, and re-connecting with friends, family, and acquaintances.

4. Are you prepared psychologically to retire?

Do you have a retirement plan? Do you have hobbies or interests that will fill your time? Have you realistically considered what your life will be like as a retired person?

Many people have unrealistic expectations about their retired lives. They imagine that they will take up golfing or tennis, begin hobbies, learn to play the guitar, travel, etc. A good test is to evaluate that part of your life currently. Are you involved in sports, hobbies, or music and passionate about it? If not, it may be unreasonable to expect that you will suddenly develop that passion the day after you retire. The most successful retirees plan out their post-working lives.

What about longevity? Will you live longer as a retiree or a working individual? Research by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin, as part of their “Longevity Project,” shows that people who have meaningful careers and are especially productive have the longest lives. As Friedman and Martin state, “Striving to accomplish your goals, setting new aims when milestones are reached, and staying engaged and productive are exactly what those following the guideposts to a long life tend to do. The long-lived didn’t shy away from hard work for fear that the stress of it would lead to an early demise; the exact opposite seems true!”

Reference

Friedman, H.S. & Martin, L. (2012). The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study. NY: Plume.

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