What do you call a person who is happy on Monday? Retired.
Emblazoned on coffee mugs and T-shirts, it’s an amusing sentiment that accurately sums up how many people view retirement after years, sometimes decades, of working full time.
But despite stereotyped images of days filled with golf and leisure, life after work isn’t always an easy transition.
“Assuming that you like your job, and it’s not extremely stressful to the point where we know stress is bad, it gives you purpose and engagement with life,” said Carrie Andreoletti, psychology professor and coordinator of gerontology at Central Connecticut State University.
“We all need a reason to get up every day, and if work is your reason, that’s great. And when you lose that, it can be hard.”
According to Andreoletti, research shows that how people respond to retirement depends on several factors, including whether their departure was planned or involuntary and their individual personality.
“People with forced retirement might struggle with it more if it’s for health reasons, to care for someone else or downsizing,” she said.
And in terms of personality, Andreoletti said that if someone’s identity is heavily tied to their occupation, that also can make the transition especially difficult.
“Identity is constructed,” explained Brett A. Steinberg, a board-certified neuropsychologist who specializes in adult and geriatric neuropsychology at Comprehensive Neuropsychological Services in Cheshire.
“We, as we’re growing up, get all kinds of messages — from family, friends, teachers, people in the community — about what it means to be a person.
“Sometimes those messages are based in occupation, and some of the things that are connected with occupation. And that can lie at the center of our constructed identity.”
But not everyone feels defined by their job. Many people work mostly out of necessity or as a means to an end.
So, to understand the effects of retirement, one first needs to understand what someone finds meaningful.
“What do you value the most as a person?” said Steinberg. “What leaves you most lit up about life? What gives you the greatest experience of quality of life?”
If an individual’s occupation is of high importance to their identity and quality of life, then retirement, even when it’s a choice, can be felt as a loss.
But for Betty Bajek, leaving her job as a corporate trainer in Stamford five years ago was anything but.
Retiring not only liberated Bajek from a 110-mile, daily commute, it was also the start of a new chapter in her life.
“I found out that I was busier being retired than when I worked,” she said, “because now I had time to get involved in all these things.”
With her newfound freedom, Bajek became involved with the Connecticut AARP and serves as a community outreach volunteer, presenting programs on fraud and other relevant issues.
Bajek said she encounters many retirees who, like her, are finally able to pursue interests and experience life on their own terms.
“The world is open to you. All of a sudden you have this freedom because you’re not on this routine, you’re not regimented where you’re getting up, making your lunch, going to work and coming home,” she said.
“Now your day is your own, now you have this freedom to do whatever you want. Now you can make up your own mind about what you want to do because you’re not restricted.
“It’s a fabulous feeling to have all that lifted; that responsibility of working.”
A Blank Canvas
Of course, finances and health play a significant role in what retirement looks like, as do family and social connections. And not everyone is ready for the open space that can often accompany this particular stage of life.
But there are ways to manage the uncertainty, stress and other related concerns, said Steinberg, including traditional talk therapy.
“Just having an opportunity to speak about what it’s like to face the blank canvas, what you want to do, what does it bring up in terms of your emotions, if you have some ideas of how you might want to paint on that canvas.”
Talking with peers can also be helpful.
“If you know people that have made the transition from employment to retirement — not just talking about what did you do, but how did you do it,” Steinberg said, “and what was it like, and how did you go about doing it.”
Andreoletti said staying social and engaged, as well as continuing to learn and maintaining a routine are all important to well-being.
“Everybody needs a purpose,” she said. “So, when your purpose is no longer getting up and going to work every day, the task is really to find a new purpose.”
She also said that staying physically active is beneficial and can help facilitate social connections through joining a gym, class or other fitness group.
Bajek said that getting involved with a senior center or seeking out local opportunities is a great way to find purpose and to fill unstructured time.
“Start right within your home town. What are some things I could do in the town? Do they have anything at the library? Can I read to the children at the library? Or maybe I’m really good at a craft, or can I do some type of seminar at the library, senior center, church?
“It’s taking a look around,” she said. “What do you have in your immediate community that you can do? It’s taking the time to see what your resources are out there and what is going to spark interest in you.”
For any number of reasons, however, not everyone is comfortable or able to participate in various social and physical activities, and Andreoletti said that, like anything, it’s about what works best for each individual.
“Some people may be quite happy to stay home,” she said. “I think it’s important to understand that there are individual differences, and not everybody needs the same level of social interaction; we need to be respectful of that.”
Most important, perhaps, is reframing the context in which we view ourselves and our perception of what it means to retire.
“We need to rebrand retirement in a way,” said Andreoletti.
“The word ‘retirement’ has all sorts of things wrapped up into it, but the reality is that for many people it provides the opportunity to do something that they have always wanted to do, whether it is a third-age career or just learning something new.”
Understanding and managing our expectations can play a pivotal role in how we feel about retirement, said Steinberg. He said it may be useful to evaluate where the expectations come from, what you expect retirement to be like, how it’s going to go and how you might feel if they aren’t met.
Once clarified, Steinberg explained that the next thing to do is to be present in the here and now and make decisions about the future based on your core values.
“Being in the present, and serving our valued commitments in the present moment, is a terrific antidote to expectation,” he said. “And, actually, it’s probably the firmest foundation for making expectations a reality to the extent that we can.”