Welcome to “Dear Guy,” TED’s advice column from psychologist Guy Winch. Every month, he answers readers’ questions about life, love, work and what matters most. Please send them to email@example.com; to read his previous columns, go here.
I have worked from age 17 to now (I am 60 this year), and I’ve really enjoyed my career in IT. One week after leaving school, I started to work and I’ve had no break other than regular two-week holidays since then. People in my age group start conversations with “what do you do?”, and I do feel that my work has defined me in many ways.
At some point soon, I will retire — and I am terrified! I have no idea what I will do with all that time or why I will do it. I am happily married and have a 21-year-old son. Yes, my wife and I can travel and I can read books I never got around to. There are operas to enjoy and restaurants to try, but this isn’t going to get me out of bed at a reasonable time!
Retirement is assumed to be that happy stage of life in which we stop working and do whatever we want instead. But the research tells us that leaving our jobs and careers, losing that part of our identities, and being without structure or purpose can make the transition far more challenging than we anticipate.
To be clear, some people adjust well to retirement, but others don’t. And when you say, “There are operas to enjoy and restaurants to try — but this isn’t going to get me out of bed at a reasonable time!”, I worry you might be in the latter group, the one that needs to carefully consider when and how to retire in order to craft a meaningful, satisfying life.
But before getting into that kind of psychological retirement planning, I have to ask: Why is retirement on the horizon?
You write, “At some point soon I will retire — and I am terrified!” Is it because you want to work less? Does your company or country have a mandatory retiremen age? Do you believe that you’ll be happier retired than working?
There are many people who work into their 70’s (and beyond) because they feel better and happier to be employed. Might you be one of them?
While you chew on that, let’s discuss why retirement is “terrifying” to you. You write, “I do feel my work has defined me in many ways.” Indeed, you’ll need to redefine who you are and what you do. This isn’t an easy task, and it takes time.
Here are my suggestions for how you can start planning for the emotional aspects of retirement:
1. Identify your current sources of meaning and satisfaction
Our jobs entail many aspects — ones directly related to our official roles and responsibilities (e.g., project management, sales) and ones that are not (e.g., having lunch with colleagues, mentoring junior employees).
Make a list of the aspects of your job that are the most meaningful to you and/or the ones from which you derive the most satisfaction or self-fulfillment.
So let’s say being a manager was meaningful to you. What opportunities are there for you in retirement to take on a leadership role? Or, if you enjoyed developing new apps and helping people use them, are there any educational causes that you could volunteer for?
2. Think about how you want to define yourself in retirement
We all have many roles in life — in your case, you worked in IT, but you’re also a devoted spouse and parent. Make a list of the non-professional roles you currently inhabit, even small ones (for example, occasional gardener).
Then ask yourself: Which other roles in your life would you like to expand? Maybe it’s your involvement with your partner or son, your extended family or your community.
3. Visualize an ideal day in retirement
While meaning and satisfaction are important, don’t forget to think about the fun stuff. What are enjoyable things you currently don’t have time for that you might want to try in retirement? What percentage of your days could be made up of them?
Having an idea of what a typical good day in retirement looks like for you will help prepare you psychologically and ease your transition. It will also help remove some of the uncertainty that’s likely fueling your anxiety. Big life changes always bring uncertainty, so it’s important to fill in potential gaps with as much detail as we can and plan ahead as much as possible.
4. Find ways to be in flow
There are some activities we do that absorb us so completely, we lose touch with what’s going on around us. We could start painting, writing, gardening, playing a musical instrument or organizing our garage — and the next thing we know 3 hours have passed.
Psychologists call this engaged mental state “flow.” Flow is an optimal psychological state, which contributes to our well-being and happiness.
What are flow activities that you can do during retirement? Activities that promote flow are not passive (sorry, binge-watching a show on Netflix doesn’t count), they are moderately challenging (not tough enough to be frustrating but not easy enough to be boring), and they offer feedback so you experience a feeling of progress.
As you plan out this next phase of your life, remember: Retirement is something that you’ll craft over time. My patients often find their retirement plans need tinkering and tweaking as their circumstances, feelings or needs change. If something isn’t working, you can always take a step back and rethink.
It’s especially important for you to monitor your emotional health during a major change like this. If you experience prolonged drops in mood or changes in habits — like you used to make your bed every morning but after retiring, you don’t — consider talking to a mental health professional.
By keeping your eye on your happiness and satisfaction, you’ll be able to address any issues as they arise and ensure that your retirement years will be just as happy and purpose-driven as all the years that came before.
Please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org; to read his previous columns, go here.
Watch his talk on emotional first aid here: