How to Cope With the Emotional Side of Retirement

Retirement—that stage of life when you can step away from work and spend time with family, friends, and pursuits, relying on our savings and retirement plans to finance the daily costs of living—would in theory be nothing but a joyous time. We’re finally able to participate in activities and hobbies that engage our passions and can redirect 40 hours or more every week to things we find fun and engaging. However, there’s an emotional side of retirement that can make the transition difficult.

When the recently retired begin to experience feelings of stress, frustration, fear, resentment and more, they often feel confused. After all, isn’t this supposed to be fun? The truth is that retirement can exact a heavy psychological toll, even (perhaps particularly) for people who are excited about being able to stop working and enjoy life.

Retirement can be an emotional rollercoaster, but with the right mindset and coping strategies, it can be a fulfilling and enjoyable transition into a period of creativity, rest, and exploration—one you’ve earned.

Understanding the Emotional Side of Retirement

Retirement may sound like a dream come true, and for the most part, it does provide well-earned relief and respite from the sometimes absurd demands of work in the 21st century. However, it’s also a major life change.

After decades of adhering to one routine for two-thirds of your adult life, you’re suddenly expected to do … what, exactly? The lack of professional demands being made on your time might be offset by familial expectations that you’ll spend time with children, a spouse, or others; tackle home improvement projects; babysit the grandkids for free; or any of a myriad of other “fun” activities.

2012 academic article summarized the potential psychological effects of retirement, including:

  • Increased risk of depression
  • Reduced level of self-confidence
  • Decision paralysis, or feeling like you can’t make a final choice between two or more options
  • Anxiety and panic over health and end-of-life matters

While there’s no single road map that every retiree follows on the road to happy retirement years, there are some commonalities. In fact, prior researchers identified five separate phases in the transition to retirement:

  1. An initial increase in interest and attention as the date of retirement gets closer
  2. A feeling of euphoria and well-being, commonly setting in at the beginning of retirement
  3. Some increase in perceived stress levels
  4. Making life changes to cope with the new realities of the retirement lifestyle
  5. Settling into acceptance of life changes

There’s no guarantee that any specific individual will experience all five phases in a steady, sequential order. Your experience is yours alone. However, it’s helpful to have a general understanding of common retirement experiences, as this helps you prepare for what might happen. Being aware of what you’re likely to experience is the first and biggest step towards embracing and enjoying your post-career years.

Coping Strategies for the Emotional Side of Retirement

Finding purpose and meaning in retirement makes the transition to retirement easier. To get there, try the following tactics:

1. Understand What You Might Feel and Experience

Being familiar with the five phases and potential psychological effects of retiring will help you anticipate and cope with these changes. Simply reminding yourself that what you’re going through is common and even natural can help shore up your confidence and emotional well-being.

2. Develop a Positive Mindset

You don’t have to become a full-time practitioner of positive thinking, which can sometimes turn toxic and damaging. It’s never a good idea to cling to unrealistic expectations or engage in magical thinking. Rather, practice talking to yourself in a way that refocuses you on the things you’re gaining through the transition to retirement, instead of perseverating over the things you feel you have lost or are losing.

3. Stay Active

Keeping busy and engaged helps you embrace your retirement years in a few ways. First, it simply gives you something else to focus on besides the big changes you’re undergoing. Second, it helps you stay physically and mentally healthy, which in turn makes it easier to cope with things that challenge you. Look into physical activities offered through community centers, gyms, and other groups. If you’re physically capable, get out and take a walk or do your own grocery shopping instead of relying on delivery services. Take frequent breaks throughout your day to do light calisthenics, stretching, or dancing. And if you want to travel, plan that dream trip.

4. Stay Social

If you’ve moved to a new city or location, make a concerted effort to form new friendships. Building and maintaining social connections is vital for healthy seniors to stay healthy and well. Those relationships will also help you adjust to your new lifestyle and respond to new challenges effectively. Join clubs or organizations that align with your interests and beliefs. Connect with other couples or singles and plan regular get-togethers. Churches, volunteer work, fundraising, and senior centers are other great ways to make new friends and stay social.

5. Create a New Budget

Staying on top of your changing financial picture can also help reduce stress and manage growing anxiety over not working. Even the mere act of seeing the numbers on paper can help reassure you. And if those numbers aren’t adding up for you, you can always look for ways to add new income streams and trim expenses. It all begins with a solid, revised budget that reflects your new reality.

Extend to yourself the compassion and empathy you’d extend to any friend going through a similarly challenging life transition. You may have a certain set of expectations of how you’ll spend your blissful days of not-working, engaging in all the things you’ve dreamed of doing for years, only to find that the reality doesn’t quite match up. Allow yourself some flexibility to figure it out as you go.

7. Consider Seeing a Therapist

It’s not necessarily a universally-applicable solution. However, it’s important not to discount therapy or counseling completely. In the right circumstances, seeking professional help can give you the tools and tactics you need to build a beautiful, happy life for yourself after retirement. Choose a therapist or counselor who seems to align with your goals and objectives, and with whom you feel you can be open and honest for the best possible mental health results.

Make a plan for coping with your retirement transition, using as many of these approaches as you feel appropriate for your circumstances. Finally, make it a point to check in with yourself emotionally every so often to see how you feel in the moment. The simple act of paying attention to your psychological state can help you address problems as they arise, instead of well after the fact.

Real-Life Examples of Coping with Retirement

It might feel as if you’re the first person in the world to struggle through the emotional side of retirement, but it only seems that way. In fact, it’s a really common experience. Yet even as it can make you feel less alone to know others have felt the same emotions, you can also help yourself cope with these challenges by reading about the ways in which other retirees managed the transition—or didn’t.

Betty White

While the beloved actress and comedian didn’t officially retire from acting, she did slow down the pace of her acting jobs in her later years. Yet she continued to remain active and stay engaged with her fans and colleagues, whether through social media or other events. Her philosophy on aging and retirement can be summed up in one particular quote:

So you may not be as fast on your feet, and the image in your mirror may be a little disappointing, but if you are still functioning and not in pain, gratitude should be the name of the game.”

Warren Buffett

The famed billionaire, philanthropist, and investor also has not retired, stating that he had no plans to step down as CEO of Berkshire Hathaway as long as his health remains good. In 2022, he publicly acknowledged he was in “overtime” due to his advancing age. He also stated that there was a succession plan in place for the company, but that the successor wasn’t “warming up” to take over from him just yet.

Bill Gates

The co-founder, CEO and director of Microsoft stepped away from his daily work at the company in 2008 and shifted his focus to his humanitarian and philanthropic work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates remains a powerful and influential person in the fields of global health, poverty relief, and technology, pursuits that he has been able to commit to thanks to his decision to step down from his day-to-day work at Microsoft.

Maya Angelou

The famous poet and author stepped down from her teaching work at Wake Forest University in 2011. However, she also continued to write, and even had plans to teach another class before her death in 2014. She once said, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Jimmy Carter

The beloved former President immediately launched himself into humanitarian and diplomatic work after he left the White House in 1981, after losing the election to Ronald Reagan. For forty-plus years after that, he’s provided a striking model for active retirees who want to make a difference in their communities and in the world at large.

Making a Healthy Transition to Retirement

Knowing that challenging emotional responses to retirement might occur is, in and of itself, a helpful coping strategy. The simple reassurance that what you’re feeling is completely normal can be deeply reassuring.

You can further support yourself (or a loved one) through this transition by extending some understanding to yourself (or your loved one). Simply remind yourself periodically that it’s not unusual to feel stressed, resentful, or just out of sorts when you’re making any major life change. Then think about what specific tactics can best provide what you feel is missing.

Finally, if you’re still struggling to cope with the emotional side of retirement, think about ways you can add a little more structure to your days. Don’t discount the power of a volunteer position or part-time job in helping you transition to retirement. You can slow down without fully stopping right off the bat.

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