Not long ago, I spent months surveying thousands of retirees to determine what makes for a happy post-career life. This research was the basis for my book, You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think.
So, you can imagine that I was intrigued when I came across a new book that offers an in-depth look at what makes retirees unhappy. Retirement and Its Discontents, by University of Toronto assistant professor Michelle Pannor Silver, provides valuable insights that echo my own beliefs about retirement.
Silver interviewed dozens of former doctors, professors, CEOs and homemakers who viewed themselves as retired. All of these people had found the transition to retirement challenging at best.
Why so glum during their Golden Years? Many of those interviewed said that they felt forced into retirement by their employers, or strongly pushed in that direction by friends, colleagues and families. Many missed their professions and their work. And most of those Silver spoke with said they felt they were unprepared for their new life.
This news isn’t exactly surprising. According to a statistic in the Charles Schwab 2018 Boomer Study, of the 278 participants in 401(k)s ranging in age from 54 to 70, when asked what they planned to do when they retired from their primary job or occupation, 17% said: “Not sure what will happen.”
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The best retirement plan is one that goes beyond dollars and cents and gets into detail on how you’ll spend your newfound free time.
In my book, I talk a lot about core pursuits. These are hobbies and activities that individuals love and pursue with passion and regularity. Core pursuits are the backbone of a well-spent retirement. My research found that the happiest retirees have at least 3.5 core pursuits on average, while the least happy have just 1.9.
So, what gives with these doctors, professors, CEOs, and homemakers? Do they just not have enough core pursuits? Maybe. I think the real issue is that work has gotten a bad rap. Job and career are often portrayed as a ball-and-chain holding us back from chasing our true bliss. But for many people work is not a dirty word; it’s not just an obligation. If we are passionate about our job, work itself can be a core pursuit.
As Silver explains it, the physicians she interviewed described a kind of lack of adrenaline rush – they used to get a thrill from going to work, and now that they’re retired, that feeling has evaporated.
This sentiment makes sense. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to recreate the kind of jolt you get from doing the work you love when you are living a life focused on hobbies, recreation and relaxation. You typically don’t get the same sense of accomplishment that comes with a meaningful job well-done.
But it is possible to imbue retirement with excitement, energy, and achievement.
If you choose core pursuits that push your limits – mentally and/or physically – you will likely feel a nice sense of reward when you succeed. This sense of accomplishment can itself produce an adrenaline rush that will keep you energized.
Take another example from Silver. During her interview, she identified CEOs who were retired and engaged in volunteer work, but that just wasn’t doing it for them. They confessed to Silver that they couldn’t wait to get back to doing some paid work.
And that’s totally ok.
Whenever I talk about core pursuits, I always mention part-time work. For some of us, our work is such a passion piece that it is key to our happiness – even in retirement. If that’s how you feel, consider working part-time, consulting, or even becoming a professor in your field.
For some of us, the practice of going from putting in 100% at work to full-time retirement (and 0% work) won’t make us happy. So, I agree with Silver’s conclusion that you don’t have to stop working “cold turkey.” I’ve written about the Grey Zone of retirement, where we’re still working but partially retired. For many people, that’s a perfect spot – one they occupy for years.
So, as you move along on your journey of retirement planning, be sure to figure in the social aspects in addition to the financial ones. Thinking about how you’d like to spend your days, whether working or not, is a great way to prepare for this new phase of life.
If you find that your retirement isn’t the way you’d like it, you can always make a change. Whether going back to work or taking on a new core pursuit, the options are limitless. Just make sure, whatever you do, that you keep that adrenaline pumping.