Just the other day a relative mentioned to me a couple he knew who exemplified the classic retirement failure – not a financial failure, but a failure of imagination, or desire, or maybe self-knowledge.
You know this story. Married couple, husband retires, wife adjusts pretty well and has an active and interesting life. Husband does a lot of goofing off, plays golf with his buddies, watches a lot of TV, and then starts to get bored, and miserable, and hates being retired.
How common is this? If you type “retirement de” into Google, “retirement depression” is one of the four suggested topics that will pop up. (And you will also find a lot of good information about it there.)
Of course, people who already have a tendency toward depression are more likely to fall into this mode. But everyone is potentially susceptible. The problem is that getting off on the wrong foot can easily send people into a downward spiral that doesn’t feel like it’s heading downward, until you’re pretty well into it. Here's how it goes:
- It’s so easy to start off being retired with the idea that now, finally, it’s your chance to goof off: no more alarm clock, no more getting dressed for work, no more being bossed around, no more doing what other people want you to do – and lots of just kicking back and watching the rest of the world sweat. And certainly, a little bit of that is deserved, and even healthy.
- But laziness is debilitating. The more we focus on our freedom to not do things, and the more we set that as a priority, the less interested we become in doing even things that we like to do. Ambition and initiative fly out the window, and even if we realize that it’s happening, we can slip far enough into this mode that we don’t have the ambition and initiative to do anything about it!
- We also become less interesting to other people. We become disinclined to participate when someone else proposes something. And we have little to add to conversations when we are with friends, because we haven’t done anything or been interested in anything ourselves. So they don’t seek us out as much, and we become more alone, more inactive, and perhaps more depressed.
Most people do snap out of this eventually, but often only after a struggle, and typically only after a fairly long period of letting themselves (and their spouses and friends) suffer with it.
The cure, usually, involves developing some new interests, or returning to and expanding upon old ones, ideally several very different kinds of interests – some active and some quiet, some you do by yourself and some you do with others, some that are productive or are beneficial to yourself or others, and some that are just for fun or for rest. For each person, the right portfolio of activities is a personal matter, but variety is of the essence (see my November 10 posting on “Your ‘Social Portfolio' in Retirement").
But the better strategy is to avoid falling into this trap in the first place.
There actually are multiple factors that conspire to lead newly retired people in the wrong direction, most of them avoidable if you prepare yourself mentally for retirement. One is the attitude that retirement is about what you no longer have to do or to be, rather than about what you now have the opportunity to do and to be. Another is the idea that playing and resting are the ultimate best way to spend time, rather than merely being important components in a life that is balanced with activity and leisure. A third is a sense of doom that overcomes some retired people early on (and a large proportion of retired people eventually), that the best part of their lives is over – “best” meaning healthiest, most productive, most involved, most physically attractive, or whatever their personal priorities might be – and it’s all downhill from here: slipping, fading, aging, dying.
The antidote to all of these is Wisdom, which the ancients tell us begins with self-knowledge. If, when we retire, we know who we truly are, what our real contribution to life was/is/can still be, how to separate our passing desires from our true needs, and how much we continue to be able to offer to others (no matter how much we eventually weaken with age), then we enter retirement with a mental and even “spiritual” readiness that, if maintained, will carry us through the retirement transition itself, and whatever others lie before us.
Easier said than done? Sure, but even so, it's not that hard!
Chuck Yanikoski is a retirement adviser who lives and works in Harvard. For more about him, or to contact him directly, visit www.ChuckYRetirement.com.