While the idea of retirement can be daunting, research shows the majority of retirees experience consistent or improved life satisfaction across their transition into retirement. There is no uniform pattern to retirement adjustment as the transition, and what supports it, may look different for everyone. In part due to recent APA aging-related initiatives, psychologists are beginning to understand the factors generally associated with a smoother transition to and life satisfaction in retirement.
Kelli Howard, lecturer in the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development, answers questions about how those entering retirement can reduce the anxiety associated with this life change.
Q: How should I begin planning for retirement?
Dr. Howard: Think about retirement as a process, not an event. Just like graduation or marriage, retirement is a life transition that benefits from planning and preparation. If possible, enlist the help of financial planners for your transition, and see if your employer offers any financial support or incentive for retirement planning. Both steps are associated with improved post-retirement satisfaction.
Additionally, retirees’ perceptions of control throughout their transition are predictive of greater satisfaction. Instead of worrying about the big picture, identify small action steps toward retirement planning in the present. For instance, many find moving to part-time or “bridge work” offers a more gradual transition to retirement, allowing for adjustment and choice in your own timeline.
Q: Can I expect a reduced level of stress as a retiree?
Dr. Howard: If you believe your current job is making you miserable, it is tempting to think of retirement as a blissful cure-all. The research on this is mixed. While it is true that higher work stress and dissatisfaction predicts a more satisfying adjustment, it is also true that poor overall health tends to continue across the change. It is best to attend to physical and mental health throughout your transition by staying physically active and practicing healthy coping and stress management.
Retirement adjustment also can be less rosy for people who have limited sense of role and identity outside of their career. For these retirees, it can take time to cultivate a sense of self-worth beyond “work” in the traditional sense. Seek greater balance in your life by developing meaningful non-work connections and activities throughout your transition.
Q: How will I maintain my relationships once I’m not working?
Dr. Howard: Positive social support is a protective factor for pretty much all things well-being. For instance, married people tend to enjoy more satisfaction post-retirement, particularly when they report high levels of marital satisfaction. That said, the adjustment to retirement extends to your support network, as marked changes in routine and availability can affect everyone in a household. Understanding your own feelings and needs, and communicating them effectively, can be a buffer to these changes. Supportive friends, mentors and family members can also be valuable resources, as are organizations that offer social and support groups for retirees. Should you wish for professional guidance, there are also psychologists who specialize in supporting individuals through career and vocational transitions.
Q: Will I enjoy being retired?
Dr. Howard: Take the good and the bad (but expect the good).The adjustment to retirement is rarely linear, and may involve seemingly contradictory feelings and reactions. This makes sense! You are moving away from one phase of your life and toward another. Sadness, regret, anxiety and loneliness may coexist with excitement, relief, pride, hope and surprise. It’s okay — in fact, encouraged — to experience the range of feelings that go along with it.
The key is to seek support and try to understand those feelings in the context of loss and opportunity. For example, acknowledge what you are giving up, but also ask yourself what you might be gaining. It may be easier to identify the former, but research suggests that people who maintain positive expectations and agree they are “retiring to do other things” report greater satisfaction post-transition.
Q: What will I do with all my extra time?
Dr. Howard: We know that engaging in volunteer work and/or meaningful hobbies in retirement is predictive of positive adjustment. As easy as this sounds, it can present unexpected difficulty. For most Americans, 60 years of school and work provided daily structure. Now, in retirement, how do you decide to fill your time?
Start by exploring your values. It can help you identify activities that mirror the meaningful aspects of your career. For instance, writing for a neighborhood newsletter could connect with values of communication and creativity, while taking a language class or organizing outings could channel learning and leadership. Values card-sort exercises are simple and effective ways of identifying meaningful directions for your time. The U of M also offers the Career Counseling and Assessment Clinic around work-related values, interests and skills — a good place to start for people feeling anxious and lost at the idea of filling their time.
Kelli Howard, Ph.D is a lecturer in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. She works in the Department of Educational Psychology’s counseling and student personnel psychology program, where she trains and conducts research with future mental health, school and higher education counselors.
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