Beware of the Faulty Retirement

Dear Dr. Hurd,

My wife and I retired to a nice, waterfront area about a year ago. In a nutshell, I’m just not very happy. It doesn’t have to do with anything specific; I love my wife, we adore our home, we’re making new friends, but I just can’t get rid of this general malaise of anxiety and sadness. We both looked forward to retiring from our busy and successful careers, but now that it’s a reality I can’t make myself feel happy, though I know I’m supposed to.


Dr. Hurd replies,

From what you wrote, you don’t know what’s causing your anxiety and sadness. You will possibly need a professional to help coax this out of your subconscious mind. However, I’ll attempt to get you started.

The first step is to identify your exact emotions. Emotions are nothing more than thoughts that “pop up” automatically in response to your values and beliefs. So ask yourself, “What would my emotions say, if they could talk?”

I’m only guessing here, but it might be that you’re feeling a lack of purpose. You described your career back home as “busy and successful” – could it be that you’re simply lacking a clear-cut, specific set of reasons for getting up in the morning? This happens in early retirement quite a bit. If you think about it, who says we’re supposed to retire? It’s a concept people take as a self-evident given, but it’s at odds with the basic human need and requirement to have some kind of a sense of purpose to make it through the day.

Faulty retirement thinking is based on the premise: “The ideal is to do nothing.” But when you find you nothing constructive in particular to do, a person often ends up feeling exactly as you describe.

Retirement is a pleasant experience in that, if you dislike your job or career, you can now get away from it. The same applies if you liked it, but you’ve had enough of it. It’s perfectly fine to move on. But taking the step of solely getting away from something still doesn’t tell you what your new purpose will be. No longer having one purpose is not the same as identifying what your new purpose is.

Just surviving comfortably is not enough. Whether it’s a job, a career, a cause or a hobby about which you’re passionate, you obviously need more than just the nice house and nice friends. Those are important, but in a sense they’re just the side dishes, not the main course. What’s the main course? It sounds to me like you haven’t decided that yet. So your anxious and sad emotions are telling you, “Hey, get on with it.”

Again, this is only a guess, but it’s an educated guess. I can’t overstate how often I see this happening to retired people. Sometimes they don’t sufficiently think out their plans. For years they’ve assumed, “Once I retire and move to the beach, life will be bliss.” This deeply held belief ultimately clashes with the facts once retirement becomes a reality. The next step is anxiety, sadness or even depression. I see it every day.

The good news? It’s entirely fixable. Find a skilled cognitive therapist who can help align your old beliefs with your new circumstances, as I’ve started to do with you here.

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