Most of us view the concept of retirement in a positive light. Heck, for many of us it’s our primary goal. Some count down the days to retirement. Others plan amazing things we will do once we’re no longer cooped up in an office.
We assume that retirement will be a good experience.
But, there’s a hidden danger in retirement. It’s an insidious danger that too many of us don’t realize is there until it’s too late.
This danger isn’t just physical. Many of us lead very active lives in retirement.
It’s not emotional, either.
The danger of retirement is mental, and it all stems from removing one of the biggest sources of achievement and productivity from our life: our jobs. Our minds crave focus and purpose, of feeling powerful and acute.
And, it’s proven that those of us who don’t find purpose in retirement will struggle.
Retirement can destroy your mental health
“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.”
Our homes remove a lot of our external purpose and sense of accomplishment that our jobs, even when they were stressful or annoying, helped us to feel. When we’re no longer working an important project, closing a record-breaking deal or publishing an important paper, many of us fall into a trap of complacency. We ask ourselves “what next?”.
Jobs provide us with:
- A mental challenge – our jobs force us to use our brains to build creative solutions to problems, or find new ways to market a product or service. Our jobs give our brains the workout that it needs each and every day.
- Structure – most of us need a degree of structure in our lives. This structure helps to keep us focused and determined, and our jobs easily provide most of us with enough structure in the office to keep us on the right track.
- Positive reinforcement – when we do good work, we feel a sense of accomplishment that is hard to replace. Promotions and raises at our job reinforce our hard work and they give us the purpose and motivation to continue pushing for more.
- Social opportunities – and, our jobs help expand our circle of friends and professional network and provide us with an outlet to “escape” what might bother us at home. For many people, these social interactions are an important part of what makes us tick.
When our brains have nothing to focus on, or we feel like there is no longer any purpose in our lives or an outlet for us to escape to, we quickly fall into a depressive state.
We feel unproductive without something to do — un-resourceful without problems to solve.
Did you know that retirement increases the probability of suffering from clinical depression by 40%? It happens more often than people may think, and the problem stems from removing these critical mental elements in our lives that make us feel important.
Researchers call this phenomenon “goal disengagement”, and it happens when we lower our expectations when times get tough, set our goals unnecessarily low or resist responsibilities. Scientists have found goal disengagement to be more common in women than in men, but also admit more research needs to be done to draw a more formalized conclusion.
Retirement is not always easy. But, there are several ways to help improve your quality of life without the mental benefits that come from a full-time job.
6 ways to build a healthy retirement
Believe it or not, retirement takes practice. It’s not something that we are all automatically good at, like learning to walk as a child. It’s not a natural part of life that most of us just “get”.
Retirement demands a lot from us. Only now, these demands don’t come from work, but at home. And, these influences are often the toughest to handle.
Here are six ways to maintain a healthy retirement:
1. Stay active – it is critical to stay active in retirement. Not only will physical activity help maintain our bodies, but exercise also keeps us feeling good, which directly influences our mood as well as our overall mental health. The better we feel, the happier most of us will be.
2. Focus on learning – even after retirement, learning can be an incredibly beneficial experience. Learning something new – like woodworking or repairing cars, or even learning about topics like economics, world religions or weather forecasting, can be incredibly rewarding. This process keeps our brains active and focused.
3. Be social – don’t let your network dwindle just because you are no longer working full-time. Instead, set up times to meet and stay in touch. For example, schedule regular Saturday breakfasts with friends at the local diner, or have poker night every Friday. Maintaining relationships with your friends will help to replace the outside-the-home escape you once had with work, but without all the stresses of holding down a full-time job.
4. Volunteer – few things in life make us happier than when we help someone. For many of us, it’s the secret to happiness, and it comes in all forms. Some of us might give our time by working in a soup kitchen or local dog rescue. Or offer to drive those people without cars around town. Or put your physical skills to work with Habitat for Humanity. In whichever way works for you, finding time to give back will help to improve your mental state, every time.
5. Set hobby goals – hobbies are great ways to spend our time in retirement. They help to fill the day with something that we enjoy and they give us a sense of purpose. But, take your hobbies one step further by setting hobby goals. A hobby goal might be to complete your new fireplace mantel in two weeks. Or design three more widgets. If you’re into photography, consider spending the next month only shooting in black and white, or try night photography. In other words, switch things up and give yourself something special to work toward.
6. Build a schedule – structure is important for a lot of people. It helps us keep on track and stay focused throughout the day, and this is critical when we no longer work in an office. Instead of giving yourself a clean slate, consider developing a schedule that works well for you, and this schedule might include time to enjoy your morning coffee, a walk or gym workout, spending time doing your hobbies or volunteer work, etc. For many of us, structure improves focus.
Retirement can be bad for your mental health, but it doesn’t have to be. Remember, retirement is something that we get better at with practice. And, finding ways to replace the structure we had at work, as well as the focus and accomplishments that we felt, is a crucial part of keeping your mind active and alert without that full-time job.