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I Just Retired. Why Am I Unhappy?

To maintain your well-being after retirement, it helps to develop a plan.

Key points

  • There are many reasons why the transition into retirement can be emotionally challenging, including boredom and loneliness.
  • Retirement can have surprising outcomes. For example, people may see their grandchildren less than expected or miss a job they hadn't enjoyed.
  • Assessing one's emotional needs and creating a plan to fulfill those needs can lead to a meaningful retirement.

As a psychologist who primarily serves older adults, I have helped many people through the transition into retirement. For some, the choice to retire is made with certainty and clarity. They choose a date, have a party, and drive off into the sunset with a smile on their face.

If that’s not you, don’t despair. This is not the reality for most people I talk to. For instance, retirement is not always chosen — sometimes it comes as a result of a sudden health crisis, increased caregiving responsibilities, or after being fired from a job and not being able to find another one. The stress and struggle associated with each of these can complicate the transition or make it feel like something you’ve stumbled into unwittingly.

Conflicting Feelings Around Retirement

Source: Pasja1000/Pixabay

Even if you get to choose your retirement date, it is normal to have ambivalent feelings. Many people enjoy their work, their daily routine, their colleagues, and their income. It’s a lot to walk away from all at once. Everyone around you may be ready to celebrate while your own feelings might be more confusing or even downcast.

It’s normal to feel sadness, grief, or let’s face it, abject terror at the prospect of retirement. The way most people imagine a “typical” life course, retirement is one of the final major transitions. Not surprisingly, then, it can bring up a lot of feelings about life, death, and the meaning of it all.

Many people are shocked to discover the emotional turbulence that arises a few months after retirement. After the thrill of sleeping in, daytime television, and grocery shopping on Wednesday mornings wears off, an unexpected malaise of boredom, loneliness, and purposeless sometimes sets in.

Other people micro-manage their first few months of retirement, getting themselves overly involved in activities to the point of being busier than they were while working. This too can be exhausting and become unsustainable very quickly.

Caring for Your Emotional Needs After Retirement

As you can see, there are many reasons why you might be unhappy around the time of your retirement. In order to take care of your emotional well-being, it takes a plan. I’m not talking about the cliched “get a hobby” advice that can too easily lead to post-retirement overwork or volunteerism burnout. Instead, I suggest you take some time to reflect on what sustained you emotionally about your work life and then make a loose plan to make sure those needs get fulfilled after retirement.

Consider what needs your work life fulfilled. Don’t think just about the tasks of the job, but all the things that go along with work. Many people are shocked to realize just how long this list becomes when they stop to write it down. A few include engagement, purpose, contribution, achievement, social connection, structure, creativity. The income might provide a sense of safety or autonomy, knowing you do not have to rely on anyone else for financial support.

Don’t forget to think about the things about work that were just plain fun. You might have been able to travel, goof around with coworkers, or stimulate your mind by solving interesting problems. You might have enjoyed the quiet time listening to the radio during your commute. You might also be surprised to discover that work helped you avoid some unpleasant things, like spending time at home where you have noisy neighbors or an adult child who stubbornly refuses to move out.

Once you have a sense of all the ways that your work life fulfilled you, begin to brainstorm new ways to get the same needs met after retirement. For instance, if you enjoyed socializing at work, how will you make sure you get social time after you retire? Some people make plans to stay in touch with friends from work, while others know that work relationships won’t translate into this new phase of life.

Many people look forward to spending more time with their grandchildren after retirement, only to realize that they only get to see them occasionally. Have a heart-to-heart with your family to make sure you are on the same page with regard to how much time you’ll spend together. If family isn’t your thing, think about other ways to meet your social needs by scheduling regular time to connect with friends or finding community activities to get involved in.

Many people overlook the sense of purpose and contribution that work often provides. Even if you never loved your job, you might be surprised by how empty life feels without it. Think about how you want to spend your days. You may find that passive entertainment becomes boring quickly, or that travel is stimulating but only while you’re away. As nice as it is to reflect on all the good work you did during your career, eventually that glow may also fade and you may bore of your own trips down memory lane.

Most people need to know they matter in the present tense, even if it’s in small ways. Think about the ways you like to contribute, what skills or talents you have to offer, or what topics or causes matter most to you. Also, don’t overlook the small moments of meaning that life hands you. Maybe you bump into a neighbor and get to share some words of wisdom, or you enjoy filling your birdfeeders or walking your dog every morning. Take a few moments to savor and appreciate the contributions you make to the world, however great or small, whenever they happen.

Sometimes, it’s the small things you end up missing the most. If you realize that your commute was providing meaningful time in solitude, you might find it helpful to take up meditation or go on short road trips to enjoy some quiet time alone behind the wheel.

If retirement feels like something that happened to you by necessity, I encourage you to flip the script and take some ownership over it. Even if you haven’t worked for a few years, throw yourself a retirement party now to make it official and get a fresh start in this new phase of life.

Thinking about what worked for you during your work life can be a useful guide for the kind of retirement you might also find enjoyable, but don't limit yourself. Retirement can also be a time for discovery, and perhaps to meet needs that long went unfulfilled in your workday years.

My happiest retired clients have been the ones who created a plan then held it loosely so they could be responsive to their own changing needs, obligations, and unexpected opportunities. What’s most important to remember is that there is no cookie-cutter retirement, and no special rules you have to follow to do it "right." You get to do it your way.

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