Will Retirement Be Depressing?

Advertisers often portray retirement as a time of joy, freedom, and adventure. And for many this is indeed the case. But retirement, like any stage of life, also has its darker side. Some find themselves lonely and poor. Others feel lost and purposeless, or even feel a burden on society and loved ones. Unfortunately, unless positive steps are taken, this can quickly lead to depression.


So what is it about retirement that leaves some feeling this way? Of course, it depends what kind of retirement someone takes. Many gradually reduce their hours. Others never fully retire, remaining in touch with old colleagues and available to offer guidance and advice. Those who make a sudden and complete break tend to find it hardest.

First, there is loneliness. Even those who disliked their work often miss simply walking through the door on a Monday and saying good morning. And it isn’t merely the friendships and running jokes that people miss; when you retire, you lose the sense of sharing in the ebb and flow of life: moaning about the traffic, for example, discussing the big news stories, congratulating colleagues on the birth of a child and commiserating with them over the death of a parent. Leaving all that behind can be a shock.

Then there is the loss of identity. Many people invest a great deal in their career. Indeed, for some their career means as much, if not more, than their family. And they lose not only their identity but the status it brings. A nurse, for example, dedicates her life to healing and caring. She knows that others admire and value the work she does, and she is proud of this. When she retires, however, she ceases to think of herself as “a nurse” and becomes instead “a retiree” or “an old person.”

Physical Health

Good physical health is absolutely vital for good mental health. And this is especially true during retirement. Do not fall into the trap of thinking “ah, now I can have a rest and indulge myself a little.” That is fine up to a point, but you must get into a regimen of exercise and healthy eating.

For many, settling into retirement is like taking their foot off the gas. And it is surprising how quickly your physical health can decline when you do. In part, this is because people simply don’t need to be as healthy as before. If there is no work on Monday, for example, why not stay at the barbecue and have another couple of beers? If it is raining and cold, why bother to get out of bed until midday?

Above all, resist the temptation to drink more. Many people, especially men, will spend increasing amounts of time in the local bar, knocking back the beers and explaining what is wrong with the world. Drinking at home is even worse. Many do so to escape the blues, or simply to pass the time. Not only is this bad for your health, it will also drag down your mood.

Prescription drugs can also be a problem. Many elderly people, quick to condemn drug use among the young, will happily swallow any pill they can convince their physician to prescribe. But tranquilizers, sleeping pills, opioid painkillers etc. are best avoided if possible. Remember, just because these were prescribed by a doctor, that does not mean they are harmless. Pharmaceutical companies exist to make money; they aren’t charities devoted to your well-being.

The very day you retire, sit down and work out a health and exercise regimen. The body loves routine, so try and exercise at the same time each day. Everyone knows the basics by now: avoid fatty foods, cut down on sugar, eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables etc. But one additional health tip is worth bearing in mind. In the last decade or two, it has been proven that inflammation in the body causes many illnesses and diseases, including depression. Turmeric and fresh, oily fish are two healthy ways you can reduce this.

Purpose and Meaning

For many people, work gives their life meaning and purpose; it is quite literally the reason they get out of bed. This is especially true when they have an interesting career. But even those who hated the commute, disliked their work colleagues, or found the work distasteful and dull, will often be surprised at the emptiness they feel when it has gone. After all, work is an essential part of being human; it is how we express and define ourselves. Indeed, one of Marx’s big complaints about capitalism was not that the worker had to work but that this work was alienating.

If you enjoyed your career, try and retain some sort of link. Could you become a part time consultant? If you were a nurse, for example, or an army sergeant, could you now train others? Retired truckers often work as chaperones to newly-qualified young drivers, going out on the road with them for their first delivery. It never hurts to keep in touch with old colleagues. Maybe they will give you a call some time and ask for your advice, or even ask you to come in for the day and show someone the ropes. The feeling that you still have some use and are not completely redundant can be very comforting.

If this is not possible, however, the only solution is to find a new role or purpose. In a recent TED talk, Dan Buettner spoke of the Okinawan tradition of “Ikigai”, meaning something like “purpose” or “reason for being”. Elderly Okinawans choose an Ikigai for the day, which Buettner suspects is one of the reasons for their long lives. For some, this is provided by their grandchildren. But be careful. The young have their own lives to live and their own interests, and it isn’t fair to expect them to call round all the time. You may have decided to pass on your wisdom and experience, but that doesn’t mean they want to hear it!

Friends and Hobbies

Instead, get out there and make some new friends. Be fearless. It isn’t good enough to sit at home moaning that you feel lonely, empty, and bored. The world owes you nothing. When someone retires, especially if this is followed by the death of a partner, there is a tendency to sink into isolation. And this doesn’t always happen because of bitterness or contempt for the world. Often, people will say that they simply can’t be bothered, or can’t see the point, of socializing. But put in the effort and you may be surprised. No matter what your age, the right person can make a huge difference to the way you perceive and experience the world. Yes, you will meet people you dislike, people who bore you, people who even make you feel worse. But you must keep trying.

Finally, embrace new hobbies. How about learning a language, for example? If you do, combine it with another ambition or goal. So, for example, you could give yourself a year to study French or Italian and book a trip to Paris or Rome as the reward. Or maybe you could try and learn enough Russian to read Tolstoy in the original. Charity work may also provide a sense of meaning and purpose. Think of something you feel passionate about – the suffering of stray dogs, for example, or research into cancer. Again, be fearless. Do not put obstacles in your own way. It is amazing the amount of time and energy people devote to explaining why they cannot do something!

Beyond the Self

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote an essay titled How to Grow Old in which he advised the reader to “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.” Do all you can to escape the confines of the self. It is no coincidence that unhappy people talk endlessly about themselves, about their insomnia, their aches and pains, and what their doctor said last time they saw him. An ideal hobby would be something like astronomy or hiking in the mountains. Such activities will remind you how insignificant you and your problems really are.

Retirement must be embraced, not resisted. How you approach this phase of life will determine what sort of time you have. If you expect to get depressed, do not be surprised if that is what happens. Instead, look for the positives. Science is advancing at thrilling speed, not least in the area of regenerative medicine. Growing old is not what it used to be. So stay positive and resist the temptation to live in the past. It simply isn’t true that everything was better when you were young. Keep up with scientific discoveries, embrace new technologies, watch the newest films, read the latest novels, and, whenever possible, mix with young people. Depression is horrible and should never be accepted, no matter how old someone may be.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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