Making Retirement a Satisfying Experience

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A doctoral candidate in Canada noted that most North American research focusing on retirement has emphasized “the negative effects of life transition,” including the difficulty of adjusting to retirement and the financial impact of living on a reduced income. Those studies might create the impression that retirement generally has a negative impact on psychological well-being.

The Canadian researcher concluded that many of those studies are outdated. Today’s retirees are generally healthier and more active than retirees in the twentieth century. Seniors who retire today often continue to earn income from part-time or work-from-home employment. Two-earner families are more common, creating the possibility that one partner will retire while the other continues to work or that the parties will live comfortable lives by combining their retirement incomes.

In addition, research tended to draw general conclusions about a diverse population of older adults. While some people may view retirement as an unhappy experience, many others will embrace the opportunity to reboot their lives in positive ways. Most seniors will find that retirement is sometimes satisfying and sometimes frustrating — just as life was a mixture of good and bad before they retired.

More recent research has confirmed that retirement often leads to satisfying lifestyles. Freed from the constraints of a nine-to-five job, retirees are free to pursue their own interests. Improved medical care has allowed retirees to live longer, healthier lives. While poor health contributes to a less satisfying life, improvements in caregiving — either at home or in an assisted-living facility — have lessened the psychological harm that accompanies a loss of independence.

Predictors of Post-Retirement Satisfaction

Based on an independent study of Canadians, the doctoral candidate identified several factors that predict whether people will be satisfied with their lives after retirement. The most important predictors are:

Planned retirement. People who choose their retirement age have the ability to plan for retirement. Planning improves the opportunity to maximize post-retirement income and to create budgets that minimize financial stress. Decisions about the future can be considered with care and implemented on the retiree’s schedule. Planning a retirement before it occurs therefore contributes to psychological well-being. People who are unexpectedly forced into retirement — for health reasons or because they lost their jobs — are less likely to view their lives as satisfying after retirement. Retirees interviewed for the study were much less likely to have a fulfilling retirement when they were forced to abandon work that they loved doing.

Meeting expectations. Retirees are generally happier with their lives when their positive expectations of retirement match reality. Retirees who planned to travel, take classes, pursue hobbies, read more books, or engage in other activities reported satisfaction with their lives when they were able to achieve those goals. Having positive and realistic expectations makes it more likely that retirement will be satisfying.

Control of lifestyle. Retirees often commented that their pre-retirement lives were managed by a clock. The need-to-keep to a schedule, whether imposed by an employer or dropping off and picking up kids at school, left them feeling rushed, with too little time to relax. Having a flexible schedule (or none at all) allows retirees “to find more meaning in the activities without the pressures of their work life schedule.” Retirement is therefore more likely to be satisfying when it allows older adults to control how they spend their days. Retirees who continue to live a scheduled life and can’t take time to smell the coffee are less likely to enjoy their retirement years.

Maintaining and forming relationships. While the subjects of the study did not often comment about the importance of maintaining relationships with family and friends as contributing to a satisfying retirement, women were more likely to regard participation in activities with friends as an element of post-retirement satisfaction. The majority of retired women who participated in the study noted the importance of maintaining relationships and living in an environment that creates the opportunity to make new friends. Social isolation is therefore a likely contributor to dissatisfying retirements.

Being physically active. Retirees who are physically active during retirement reported high levels of satisfaction with their lives. Going for a daily walk or playing pickleball are among the activities that promote a pleasant retirement. Physical activity often overlaps with social activity, in that retirees tend to be with spouses and friends when they exercise. Retirees also commented that physical activity promotes physical health. Because the risk of declining health is a concern for most retirees, physical activity helps alleviate that concern by promoting the sense that retirees are taking proactive steps to enjoy their retirement years for as long as possible.

Lessons Learned

The study suggests that older adults will be more satisfied with retirement if they can control its terms. Planning a retirement is a key to post-retirement satisfaction. Retirees who make a retirement plan and who have the ability to stick to that plan have the best psychological adjustment to their retirement years.

Unfortunately, retirees are not always able to control the terms of their retirement. A retirement that is forced by the loss of employment before a worker is ready to retire will probably not foster a sense of well-being. Poor health always contributes to a loss of satisfaction with life, but poor health can be even more psychologically devastating when it leads to a retirement for which a senior is unprepared.

To the extent that older adults can plan their retirements and remain in good health, retirement is a satisfying time of life for most seniors. Retirees who remain active and socially connected, and who use their newly acquired free time to pursue their interests, develop a sense of well-being that might have eluded them when they no longer felt engaged with their work. Taking advantage of new opportunities allows older adults to experience a renewed sense of vigor and maximize their satisfaction with their retirement years.

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