Feature

The questions most people think about before retirement are "How much money will I need?" and "Am I saving enough?" But while financial security is certainly critical, people need to amass more than money for a successful retirement, experts say. They need to stockpile their emotional reserves, as well.

Too few people consider the psychological adjustments that accompany this life stage, which can include coping with the loss of your career identity, replacing support networks you had through work, spending more time than ever before with your spouse and finding new and engaging ways to stay active.

Some retirees ease smoothly into retirement, spending more time with hobbies or family and friends. But others, research finds, experience anxiety, depression and debilitating feelings of loss, says Robert Delamontagne, PhD, author of the 2011 book "The Retiring Mind: How to Make the Psychological Transition to Retirement."

"People can go through hell when they retire and they will never say a word about it, often because they are embarrassed," Delamontagne says. "The cultural norm for retirement is that you are living the good life."

Research by psychologists and others has found that working or volunteering during retirement can help stave off depression, as well as dementia and hypertension. But other evidence suggests that such activities aren't the key to everyone's well-being. Psychologist Jacquelyn B. James, PhD, of the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College, has found that only those people who are truly engaged in their post-retirement activities reap the psychological benefits.

That's why people need to invest as much if not more time in their social or psychological portfolio planning before retirement, to figure out what makes them happy, James says. (Read about seven psychologists' post-retirement lives.)

"Retirement is not like jumping off a diving board, it's a process and it takes time," she says. "There's a lot of work people can be doing leading up to retirement to prepare for it."

Working toward well-being

Soon-to-be retirees should consider whether or not to continue to work in some capacity, say psychologists. Many people take on new jobs after retiring from their primary careers with part-time work, a temporary job or self-employment — a trend known as "bridge employment" or "encore" work. According to a 2013 Careerbuilder.com survey, 60 percent of workers age 60 and older said they would look for a new job after retiring, up from 57 percent last year. In its 2010 "Working in Retirement: A 21st Century Phenomenon" report, the Sloan Center on Aging and Work and the Families and Work Institute reported that 1 in 5 workers has a post-retirement job and 75 percent of workers expect to work or transition to a second career at some point after they retire.

While working has obvious financial perks, it may also offer health and mental health benefits. A 2009 study led by Mo Wang, PhD, of the University of Florida, found that people who pursued post-retirement bridge employment in their previous fields reported better mental and physical health than those who retired fully (Journal of Occupational Health Psychology). The Working in Retirement report found that employed retirees report levels of health, well-being and life satisfaction on par with those who have not yet retired — despite age differences. The report also found that working retirees tend to rate their workplaces more positively than those not yet retired.

New research also shows that delaying retirement may stave off cognitive decline. A study of nearly half a million people by French researcher Carole Dufouil of the research agency INSERM, presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in July, found that for each additional year they worked, people reduced their risk of dementia by 3.2 percent.

Still, finding post-retirement opportunities or staying in the workforce as peers retire can be challenging, say psychologists.

"People can be as interested as they want to be, but if the positions aren't available, or if they don't have support through the transition, it can be difficult," says psychologist Joann M. Montepare, PhD, who directs the RoseMary B. Fuss Center for Research on Aging at Lasell College in Newton, Mass.

That's where such organizations as the Boston-based group Discovering What's Next come in, says Montepare, who serves on its board of directors. The organization offers support and resources to people 55 and over who want to embark on a second or post-retirement career and need guidance on figuring out what they want to do and retooling their skills. The organization also offers talks on interviewing and networking, as well as group discussions on age discrimination, financial insecurities and loss of career identity.

The organization is also working to increase awareness among local employers about how to tap and manage older talent, and organizing outreach programs at local businesses and nonprofits for older workers considering role transitions or retirement.

The pursuit of happiness

Whether retirees return to the workforce or not, research indicates they'll need guidance on how to maintain their well-being throughout their retirement years. A 2012 study in the Journal of Happiness Studies by Elizabeth Mokyr Horner, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, found that retirees experience a "sugar rush" of well-being and life satisfaction directly after retirement, followed by a sharp decline in happiness a few years later. In her analysis of cross-sectional data from 16 countries in Western Europe and the United States, Horner found that most retirees experienced the rush-crash pattern regardless of the age they retired.

With people living longer, more research is needed on what's causing the crash and how psychologists can help people prolong the sugar rush, she says. "People are going to spend more time retired, even if we push the retirement age back. We need to figure out a way to maximize people's happiness."

One answer might be to encourage altruism. In a June study in the Journal of Aging and Health led by Eva Kahana, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University, researchers found that people living in retirement communities reported higher levels of life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms if they were involved with low to moderate levels of volunteer work than those who weren't.

A similar finding by Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Sheldon Cohen, PhD, and graduate student Rodlescia Sneed found that older adults who had volunteered at least 200 hours within the prior year reported greater increases in psychological well-being than those who did not. The study, published in June in Psychology and Aging, was also the first to explore a correlation between volunteerism and blood pressure. The researchers found that older adults who volunteered 200 hours over the year were less likely to develop hypertension than non-volunteers.

That's likely because being a committed volunteer expands one's social ties. "Volunteering may also increase feelings of purpose and meaning in life," notes Cohen, who says commuting to volunteer sites and activities may also increase physical activity, therefore decreasing hypertension risk. "All of these have the potential of improving cardiovascular health."

But volunteering may not be for everyone, emphasizes the Sloan Center's James. People who feel duty-bound to volunteer during retirement do themselves more harm than good, she found. In a 2012 study published in The Gerontologist, James and colleagues looked at people's engagement in later-life roles, including volunteer work. They found that people who reported low to medium engagement with volunteer work had significantly poorer psychological well-being than those who didn't volunteer at all, while people who reported high engagement had greater psychological well-being.

"When we are doing things that are ‘shoulds,' or things that we feel like we have to do and are obligatory, those are hard on our well-being, no matter what age we are," says James. She is developing new measures of older adult engagement to improve and encourage more research on the topic.

Feeling obligated in one's post-retirement relationships can have the same deleterious effect, says Nancy K. Schlossberg, EdD, author of the 2009 book "Revitalizing Retirement." Schlossberg says many retirees feel pressured by family to plan a retirement based on the extended family's needs — such as babysitting grandchildren — rather than their own.

Investing in your friendships well before you retire and talking openly with family about your goals can help you avoid an unsatisfying retirement, she says. She encourages retirees to form support groups and to use their social and former work connections to help each other create internships or volunteer opportunities in areas they have always wanted to explore.

In the end, the years leading up to retirement should be a time to increase your self-awareness, adds Delamontagne. He was surprised to find he felt bored and aimless almost immediately after he retired at 63 from a highly competitive job as a software company executive. In talking to other retirees for his book, he found that people with certain personality characteristics — such as being competitive and assertive — had more difficulty adjusting to retirement and were more likely to make impulsive decisions with their time and money, compared with more mild-mannered people coming from low-pressure jobs.

"The very attributes that make people successful in their work life often work against them in retirement," he says.

While there's no way to prepare for every high and low, retirees will fare better if they familiarize themselves with the emotional challenges well in advance, Delamontagne says. "Once you know that these are the areas that cause problems, you can craft solutions," he says.

Start your planning

"Life Plan for the Life Span," a free brochure from APA's Committee on Aging, offers advice for people in all career stages on how to transition to retirement. The brochure also includes advice on health care and financial planning. Find it online (PDF, 1.96MB). 

Additional resources:

  • Cole, E., & Gergen, M. (Eds.). (2012). Retiring but not shy: Feminist psychologists create their post-careers. Chagrin Falls, Ohio: Taos Institute Publications
  • Wang, M. (Ed.) 2012. The Oxford handbook of retirement. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Scholossberg, N. 2003. Retire smart, retire happy: Finding your true path in life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.