Retirement shouldn’t feel like playing hooky

‘I can’t wait ’til I retire!’

‘Ahh, retirement—no more commute, no more taking orders, no more responsibilities!’

We hear comments like these all the time from hard-working people. Indeed, the ‘holy grail’ of retirement is, and should be, the ultimate reward for a lifetime of accomplishment and faithful employment. But, surprisingly, for some people it doesn’t seem to live up to all it’s supposed to be.

Over the last twenty years, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of counseling a number of retired people; and that is no less true at my practice here in Ocean View. One of the trends I have observed, especially with couples who moved here from a busy urban area, is some degree of dissatisfaction or anxiety expressed by the husband (and/or the wife, if she maintained a career outside of the home). It seems hard to understand at first. The dream of retirement—combined with an idyllic existence by the Atlantic Ocean—has been fulfilled. Relaxation and freedom are finally in their grasp. So why doesn’t it seem to be enough?

I am reminded of a classic behavioral experiment (every psychologist hears about this one in school) conducted with lab rats and their food. In the first part of the study, the animals’ food is buried under the ground. Motivated by hunger, they quickly learn to dig for their dinner, working hard to reach that reward. After a period of time, phase two begins: Their food is now placed on the surface—in full sight. But, interestingly enough, the little animals ignore the easy-to-reach meal, and continue to dig—as if the ritual of working for the food was unalterably linked to the reward. Aha!

Though we humans are, of course, a lot more complicated than those little white lab rats, we can also develop powerful habits. And going to work every day, along with the associated mental and social engagement, is no less a habit than any other behavior we repeat day after day, year after year.The good news is this: As rational and reasoning creatures, we can change our habits. When I say ‘habits’ I don’t just mean behaviors; I also mean habitual ways of thinking. For example, a newly retired person who, for years, had a lot of pressure and responsibility in her job or business might automatically think: ‘I have to hurry up.’ When she comes back to reality, she realizes she’s doing nothing more than taking a leisurely trip to the grocery store, or the outlets, the golf course, or yoga class. At this point it makes psychological sense for her to stop and to say to herself: ‘What’s the hurry? What’s keeping me from just taking my time? I’ll get there when I get there!’ Psychological change takes place one event at a time. You have to take a moment to modify your ‘knee-jerk’ thoughts and get onto a new mental track.

And then there’s one of my favorites: The issue of guilt. Consider the retired person who feels guilty that he isn’t going to work every day. He feels vaguely anxious, like he ‘should be doing more.’ Old habits die hard, and he hasn’t yet given himself the time to understand that he doesn’t HAVE to ‘dig for his food’ anymore. He worked long and hard for many years, and now it’s right there within his reach. But the anxiety and mental engagement associated with his job or career has become wrongly linked with the reward of his retirement. The more he sees the stress-free existence he has here at the beach, the unhappier and guiltier he feels. He has to disconnect these two feelings so he can really enjoy this new life he worked so hard to create.

Many people who retire at the beach do so with their spouses. Husbands and wives have to realize that they’re two different individuals, especially when it comes to handling a major life change. Each will have his or her own process for going through the retirement transition. Some will do so immediately, and for others it can take a while. Unnecessary marital problems develop when one spouse fails to stand back and look objectively at what their partner is going through. My suggestion is to give everything at least a year to play itself out, without jumping to conclusions such as, ‘This was the wrong decision,’ or, ‘She said she wanted to do this, and now she doesn’t.’ Of course, sometimes it’s true that big decisions don’t work out like we thought they would, and a change has to be made. But, if the original decision to retire and move was carefully considered and planned, then it probably just needs some time to sink in.

I know retirement isn’t for everyone. Many of us, in some measure, want to be productive to the end of our lives. This is perfectly fine. Just make sure that you’re being productive for your own pleasure, and not because you ‘feel like you should.’ Don’t feel guilty for taking things easier and slower.

Retirement shouldn’t feel like you’re ‘playing hooky.’ It’s just another stage of life, and a long-awaited opportunity to guiltlessly do less—or more—of whatever you want to do. So, tie up loose ends and try different things. After all, you earned it!