- The decision about when and how to retire can be hard, and the transition from work to retirement is difficult for some.
- There are eight important factors that influence mental health in retirement.
- Awareness of these factors can ease the decision-making process and make the retirement transition go more smoothly.
Are you burned out at work and financially secure? Do you feel like you need more time in your week to fulfill your dreams? Are you craving a life with a slower pace? Or are you just at the age where retirement makes sense? On the other hand, do you also worry that a drastic reduction in structure could be psychologically difficult? Are you worried about how less cash flow will feel?
A good friend of mine recently retired at the age of 58. The first three months of the transition were significantly more difficult than he expected, as he watched the stock market fall and worried about how he was going to fill his days.
“Maybe I retired too early,” he mused. “I’m bored but too stressed to get in my car and drive somewhere because gas prices are so high.”
Retirement is a significant life change, and the transition can be hard for many. Although retirement does not cause depression overall, common struggles include decision paralysis, identity disruption, loneliness, and a sense of loss of purpose. Here are some factors that might influence how smoothly that transition will go for you.
What kinds of feelings come up when you think of not having an income? Do you feel fearful? If so, what are the thoughts associated with those fears, and how valid are they?
People say that time is more valuable than money. But if you don’t have enough money to meet basic needs or to pay for things that give you joy, like travel or eating out, then money might win. Consider meeting with a financial advisor before taking the leap, and ask them about your fears and to what degree they are valid. For those fears that are not reality-based, consider working with a therapist to try to learn coping skills before leaving your job.
How do you like your job? Does it give you joy? Is it stressful? Do you dread going to work every day? Does it give you a sense of purpose?
Sometimes staying in a job you don’t like temporarily to wait out a terrible boss or to get that year-end bonus makes sense. But staying in a job you hate for years does not. Life’s too short. If you’ve got the finances and you don’t get satisfaction from your current work, retiring early may be one way to improve your well-being.
If you do enjoy your work, though, and it continues to provide you stimulation and a sense of purpose without detracting from your personal life, it might be better to keep going. Or at least consider partial retirement instead of retiring completely. Studies show that working part-time, whether in your same job or a different one, is good for your brain, and it can keep you socially connected and give you a sense of meaning while allowing you more time to play.
How strong is your social network? Is it already robust, or does it need some bolstering before you leave work completely?
Social isolation is a major contributor to depression and anxiety in retirees. Individuals vary in their needs for socialization (introverts need less stimulation than extroverts), but we all need connection for mental health. Isolation and lack of community may breed addiction and despair. Studies show that having a partner, being involved in a community, and having friends predict a higher sense of well-being in retirement.
Sources of joy and satisfaction
What brings you joy and happiness? What makes you content and satisfied? Will retirement give you more or less opportunity to engage in the things that make you feel good?
The more you experience joy, the more you will positively impact those around you; it’s not selfish to make choices for your happiness, assuming you are not hurting yourself or someone else by engaging in the activities that give it to you. Seeking novel experiences, such as traveling, engaging in creative projects, physical activity and outdoor time, and pet ownership are a few examples of healthy ways people find joy in retirement.
Meaning and purpose
As Viktor Frankl said in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Once man’s search for meaning of life is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.”
Finding a sense of meaning again after leaving a long-standing career can be difficult, but doing so reduces feelings of depression. Studies have found that people who have life goals that don’t end with the cessation of their career have a smoother transition to retirement. A sense of purpose and meaning can be cultivated through social connections, volunteering, expressing gratitude, reflecting on personal relationships, and engaging in outdoor group activities. Reflecting on your personal values and finding ways to be more aligned with them is often helpful, which some evidence-based therapies for depression, such as acceptance and commitment therapy, are especially good at.
Physical fitness and outdoor time
Will retirement give you more time outside, and do you already have an exercise habit? Or will that be something you’ll have to create from the ground up? If you have injuries or illnesses that are getting in the way of physical activity (we all get them as we age), do you have backup activities in mind?
Studies show that engaging in physical activity, especially in the outdoors, leads to better mental health across the lifespan. In retirees or elders, in particular, outdoor group activity and physical exercise were associated with greater well-being, higher vitality, more meaning in life, and reduced depression.
Family and close relationships
Is your spouse ready for you to retire? Will you see them more or less? Will there be any changes in the dynamics of the relationship? Do you already have a good process for communicating about unforeseen challenges?
People with supportive, emotionally validating families do better during the transition to retirement than those who don’t have that support. Talking the decision over with those close to you and considering the potential impacts of this big decision on everyone is an essential part of the decision-making process.
Do you worry that quitting your job will cause you to lose cognitive function, according to the “use it or lose it” hypothesis?
Interestingly, when pooled together, studies show that, on the whole, retirement does not lead to faster deterioration in global cognition, although it can slightly reduce memory. But there is individual variability. Specifically, how complex your job is prior to retirement, and whether you choose to work part-time after retirement, and where, can impact what happens to your cognitive function post-retirement. Whereas retirement from a high-complexity job does not lead to cognitive decline, retirement from a lower-complexity job might. Working part-time with a new employer after retirement may be better for your cognition than working part-time with a previous one.
In the end, there is no right decision or perfect time for retirement. And we are all different in our needs and resources. No matter what you decide, remember, too, that you can always change your mind down the road. However, making these decisions with eyes open and with consideration, and in a measured way, will serve you well, regardless.