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Is Retirement Bad for Your Mental Health?

The role of goal disengagement in cognitive decline.

Once I had a colleague who counted the days to his retirement—quite literally. “538,” he said to me one morning. The next day, it was “537.” He and his wife had plans. They were going to build their dream home on a wooded lot in the mountains that they’d purchased.

I never heard from that colleague again after he retired, but based on a recently published study by North Dakota State University psychologist Jeremy Hamm and colleagues, I have reason to believe he’s doing just fine.

At the same time, I’ve also had older colleagues who dreaded retirement. “What will I do with myself?” they wondered. I always felt sorry for them when they finally had to leave, either from bad health or administrative pressure.

Some people thrive in retirement, while others quickly fall into mental and physical decline. But what personality characteristics determine who will flourish and who will flounder once they no longer have a job to go to? This is the question that Hamm and colleagues explore in this study.

The principle of use-it-or-lose-it applies not only to our physical health but to our psychological health as well. Work is mentally challenging, even when it’s tedious. First, we need to exercise executive functioning, which is the ability to inhibit distractions and to keep our attention focused on the task at hand. Second, you need to make use of episodic memory to keep track of where you are in the process and what needs to be done next.

Then there are the social and emotional sides of work, which also keep us mentally on our toes. We have to deal with competing demands from managers and annoying behaviors from coworkers. And working in customer service calls for an even higher level of emotional intelligence.

Our jobs give us a psychological workout that keeps us mentally fit—even when it sometimes feels like it’s driving us crazy! By contrast, our home life with our spouse for many years is built on a set of well-established habits and routines that rarely tax us mentally. When we retire, then, we run the risk of losing opportunities to challenge ourselves mentally and to keep ourselves cognitively fit.

This observation led Hamm and colleagues to propose a particular personality trait that may predict who will thrive after retirement, and who will wither on the vine. They call this trait goal disengagement, and it refers to the tendency to give up easily when tasks become difficult. Consider statements like these:

  • When my expectations are not being met, I lower my expectations.
  • To avoid disappointments, I don’t set my goals too high.
  • I feel relieved when I let go of some of my responsibilities.

If you agree with these statements, you’re high in goal disengagement. People who are high in goal disengagement can still persist at difficult tasks when the situation demands it, such as in the work environment. But without external pressure, people high in goal disengagement give up as soon as the going gets tough. They’re the kind of people who toss aside a crossword puzzle half done, or maybe they have any number of unfinished projects languishing in the basement.

In contrast, if you feel these statements don’t describe you at all, you’re low in goal disengagement. You’re probably the kind of individual who sets personal goals and sees them through even though no one is pushing you and there’s no particular reward for it at the end. Once you start a project, you just don’t feel satisfied until you complete it.

To test the hypothesis that people high in goal disengagement are more likely to experience cognitive decline after retirement, they made use of data from an extensive project known as the Midlife in the United States Study, or MIDUS for short. The MIDUS collected extensive data on over 7,000 middle-aged Americans at three points in time: MIDUS 1 in 1995, MIDUS 2 in 2004, and MIDUS 3 in 2013. This database has become the go-to source for studies on aging.

Because cognitive functioning wasn’t assessed at MIDUS 1, the researchers instead focused on MIDUS 2 and 3. Their sample consisted of over 700 individuals who were still working at MIDUS 2. At MIDUS 3, about half were still working and half retired. Likewise, half the sample was male, and half was female.

For comparison purposes, the researchers were also able to match each retiree with each individual still working on a number of demographic traits. By doing so, the researchers could be more confident that any difference in cognitive functioning between the two groups was due to their retired or working status rather than other factors.

As expected, the retirees as a group showed more cognitive decline than did those still working. And as predicted, the personality trait of goal disengagement did, in fact, correlate with steeper cognitive decline after retirement—but only for women. In fact, the retired men in this study showed less decrease in mental functioning compared with retired women overall.

A closer inspection of the demographics of this sample gives some hints as to the reasons for this unexpected finding. Specifically, the men tended to have higher levels of education, greater lifetime income, and more challenging or higher status occupations prior to retirement compared to the women. All of these factors are known to boost cognitive resilience.

Although the MIDUS is a convenient database from which to draw useful information about aging in America, it has its drawbacks as well. In the particular sample used by Hamm and colleagues, the average household income was nearly $90,000 a year, far above the median for U.S. families. The sample was also 94 percent White, hardly representative of the American population as a whole.

As is always the case in science, this study raises more questions than it answers. The results indicate that retirees need to find ways to keep mentally challenged if they want to avoid cognitive decline. In addition, the study shows that plenty of older adults continue to flourish psychologically after retirement.

However, the finding that goal disengagement is related to cognitive decline after retirement in women only needs to be interpreted carefully. Specifically, this apparent gender difference is more likely due to socioeconomic status instead. Further research is called for. But in the meantime, the principle of use-it-or-lose-it still seems to apply.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock


Hamm, J. M., Heckhausen, J., Shane, J., & Lachman, M. E. (2020). Risk of cognitive declines with retirement: Who declines and why? Psychology and Aging, 35, 449-457.

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