The Holy Grail of Retiring (DE Coast Press)

“Ahh, retirement—no more commute, no more responsibilities. I can’t wait!” The holy grail of retirement is the reward for a lifetime of accomplishment and faithful employment. But for some people it doesn’t quite live up to all it’s supposed to be.

Over the years, I’ve counseled many retired people. One of the trends I have observed, especially with couples who moved here from a busy urban area, is some degree of dissatisfaction expressed by one or both parties. It seems hard to understand at first. The dream of retirement has been fulfilled. Relaxation and freedom are finally in their grasp. So why doesn’t it seem to be enough?

I’m reminded of a classic behavioral experiment (every mental health professional learns 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. They quickly learn to dig for their dinner, working hard to reach that reward. After a period of time, phase two begins: The 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 more complicated than those tiny creatures, we also develop powerful habits. And going to work, along with the associated mental and social engagement, is no less a habit than any other behavior we repeat year after year.

The good news is this: As reasoning creatures, we can change our habits. For example, a newly retired person might automatically think, “I have to hurry up,” until she realizes she’s doing nothing more than taking a leisurely trip to the grocery store. 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 taking my time? I’ll get there when I get there!” She has to modify her 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 trudging to work. 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. But the anxiety and mental engagement associated with his job have become wrongly linked with the reward of his retirement. The more he sees the stress-free existence he has, the unhappier and guiltier he feels. He has to disconnect these two feelings so he can enjoy the new life he worked so hard to create.

Many people who retire at the beach do so with their spouses and partners. They 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 transition. Some will do so immediately, and for others it can take a while. Unnecessary problems develop when one partner fails to look objectively at what the other 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.” If the original decision to relocate was carefully considered, then it probably just needs time to sink in.

Retirement isn’t for everyone. Many want to be productive to the end of their lives. This is perfectly fine. Just make sure that you’re being productive for your own pleasure, and not because you guiltily “feel like you should.”

Retirement shouldn’t feel like you’re “playing hooky.” It’s 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.


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