Retirement: Depressing or Uplifting? It’s Up to You
The impact of retiring on mental health is very hazy.
So many considerations factor into whether people retire that it’s difficult to predict how it will go. Some are uplifted by finally getting out from under a bad situation while others gets depressed because they’ve lost their purpose or important social connections. Reactions to being retired depend on, among other things, the person’s health, whether the job is fulfilling or physically very strenuous, and whether they’ve planned for how to fill the days.
So it seems important to figure out why some people thrive in retirement while others become depressed. Financial considerations are, of course, central to the timing. But money aside, my own experience watching 60-something friends tells me that whether someone is a happy retiree depends on the person.
Perhaps that explains why the research runs the gamut of conclusions about the depression issue. A meta-analysis of 41 studies published a couple of years ago determined that “retirement reduces by nearly 20 percent the risk of depression.” The highest-quality studies cited in this analysis were even more positive.
At the other extreme, one study of Europeans ages 50-70 in 11 countries found “negative and substantial effects” from retiring, including a 40 percent increase in the incidence of depression. This is problematic because, as the researcher noted, retirement ages have been trending up but are not rising fast enough to catch up with increases in longevity. The upshot: longer retirements may mean more unhappy years.
I know people in two very different professions who are likely to work beyond what you’d expect. Several professors just might die in the saddle, and one construction worker is determined to keep working even though his 63-year-old body is under immense strain. The reason professors often work a long time is that the work’s fulfilling. The construction worker’s reason for pressing on is probably more about holding on to social contact and a sense of purpose.
Some people retire simply because their jobs have become too difficult. A couple of teachers in my family retired as soon as they could and are glad they did: teaching has become a very stressful profession. And teachers usually have pensions so money wasn’t, at least for them, a big issue. One former teacher is enjoying traveling and being a grandmother, with a second baby on the way. The other one – my husband, who retired from teaching at 65 – is pursuing his lifelong loves of bridge and political activism.
I have several female friends who are thriving in retirement, having found many different ways to use their time. Several of them have one thing in common: they had a plan before they retired.
This is the best way to go about it, argues a Harvard Business School professor who studied employees in one company making the transition from work to retirement. Older workers need to have a good idea of “what life is going to be like without work, because work structures your life,” she said.
The women I know who have taken this approach seem pretty happy in retirement. One did contract work for her former employer for a few years before breaking ties and diving into writing her first novel. She’s having a wonderful time. (But a counter example, in a blog last year, is a Washington D.C. resident who did not have a plan to retire and write his first novel. He just wandered into it.)
For another female friend who constantly struggled between her job demands and her compulsion to join yet another book club or photography group, retirement has freed her to … join more things, including her condominium board.
One of my go-getter friends retired from running a non-profit. You might consider the consulting she’s now doing for other non-profits as a part-time job. And a 70-year-old I know is teaching college courses and getting involved in a boomer political group.
Making a plan before retiring seems to be a good way – but perhaps not the only way – to make sure this major life transition goes smoothly.
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