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What to do to stay mentally fit in retirement

February 25, 2022 - 17 min read

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The importance of mental fitness in retirement

What are the 5 stages of retirement?

What to do in retirement

What not to do in retirement

Retirement is a stage of life that many people look forward to. At long last, their time is their own, and they can spend time pursuing the things that matter to them.

But while a day off can seem like a rare treat when you work full time, it turns out that there can be too much of a good thing. According to a study in the U.K., the average retired person is bored and lonely within one year of retirement.

Work brings its own challenges, but it’s also a very fulfilling part of our lives. It provides a core part of how we define ourselves. Ask anyone what they do for a living, and you’ll often hear “I am” in response. We don’t “do” medicine — we are doctors, nurses, surgical techs. We don’t “have” a trade — we are carpenters, plumbers, electricians.

The importance of mental fitness in retirement

A study shows that cognitive declines in the elderly are largely in the areas of planning and self-regulation — areas that the workplace exercises. And the pandemic has shown that no matter your age, work is a primary source of social interaction. Workers are reporting feeling more lonely and disconnected than ever before, but it’s a reality that retirees are all-too-familiar with.

Older adults aren’t the only ones who benefit from prioritizing mental fitness, but they may have the most to gain from it. The retirement years can signify a shift from outer work to Inner Work®. Many of us feel guilty for taking even ten minutes away from our jobs to focus on Inner Work®. But this kind of effort, although more subtle, can make you more productive and a better leader.

After decades of work, it can be difficult to suddenly give up the routine of the office. Days full of endless free time aren’t so great when you run out of things to do. But with newfound control over your time, retirement can be a perfect time to cultivate other aspects of yourself. This might include your creativity, well-being, volunteer work, and other areas of your life that may have taken a backseat to your day job. 

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Take time during your working years to plan the new skills you want to learn and what hobbies you’ll take up. Like most things, having a good plan in place can help you make the most of your new free time.

And like most things, we’re better prepared to navigate life changes successfully when we can learn from others. Gerontologist and author Ken Dychtwald has identified a series of five psychological stages that all retirees go through.

What are the 5 stages of retirement?

The stages of retirement almost seem to mirror Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief. And in some ways, retirement is a similar psychological transition. One phase of your life is ending, and your relationship to work is changing. Now, you have to redefine yourself — and it can feel like a big piece of who you were is missing.

Understanding the five phases of retirement — and where you fall in the process — can help you prepare for the retirement you dreamed of.

1. Imagination

Starting as early as 15 years before retirement, this is the “dream” phase. It’s close enough to be a reality, but far enough away to fantasize about. With the first half (or more) of your career behind you, you have a sense of who you’ll be when you retire. You know what kind of impact you want to make on your field. The road ahead seems clear.

2. Anticipation

Around five years before you retire, reality sets in. Your colleagues, coworkers, and friends are retiring. You keep realizing with a jolt that “it’s just around the corner.” You may turn a critical eye to your finances or review the specifics of your retirement plan.

At this point, many people are still daydreaming about all the freedom they’ll have. Most give far more thought to their finances at this stage than what they’ll actually do with their time. 

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3. Liberation

Congratulations — you’re officially retired! You’ve popped the champagne, filed the paperwork, and you’re sporting that gold watch.

Now what?

Believe it or not, even though “someday” is now officially here, most retirees still aren’t thinking about how they’ll fill their time. There’s a sense of relief and excitement — and in fact, there may seem like there are too many options for what to do next.

And while there’s nothing wrong with that, retirement is more a start to the next phase of life than it is an end to the old one. Think back to when you graduated high school. Sure, one door was closing. But what made life exciting was looking forward to what was going to happen next and who you would become. And, as many an aimless high school graduate will tell you, leaving with no clear plan is a recipe for depression.

Dychtwald says that if you ask retirees what they miss the most about work, “No. 1 is the social connection, the stimulation, the action…People don’t think that through.” People who are happy to be free of their corporate schedules can use that momentum to jumpstart the next phase of their lives.

4. Reorientation

Retirement can last a long time. Depending on when you retire, you may even find that you’re retired longer than you ever worked.

My grandmother was one of these people. She had a long career — more than thirty years. But she retired in her fifties when the factory she worked at closed. Grandma stayed happily retired until she passed away at almost 98 years old, with a 42-year retirement under her belt.

In reorientation, people begin to get used to retirement — in all the best ways. It becomes the new normal. While that does mean that the honeymoon phase is over, it opens new ways of looking at retirement.

In many ways, this is its own end to the chapter — if retiring is your high school graduation, then reorientation is like finishing college. You have the perspective of the last few years coupled with the wisdom and experience of a lifetime. If you ever wished that you “knew then what you know now” — here’s your chance.

5. Reconciliation

Several years into retirement, you’ve created a new rhythm for yourself. You have a sense of purpose and fill your days with activities that you enjoy. This time of retirement is hopefully the longest and most fulfilling. There’s stability and freedom to this phase of your retirement years.

What will you do with this life after retirement? After all, it may end up being longer than your career. That’s a lot of time to fill. Here are some ideas on how to boost mental fitness well into your golden years.

What to do in retirement

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1. Take a part-time job

Go back to work? But you just left! It can be hard to quit any habit or routine cold turkey — so imagine how jarring it will feel to suddenly not have to go to work ever again. Transitioning to part-time can help provide some structure and a comfortable routine as you get used to retirement. You might discover a new passion, and it’s a great way to supplement your retirement income.

2. Stay active

Take up a new sport (or return to one you used to love). Exercise has well-documented benefits for both mental and physical health. Try an exercise that has some stress-relieving benefits as well. This might include biking, walking, Pilates, or yoga. 

3. Travel

There’s a reason that travel tops the bucket lists of almost every soon-to-be retiree. After all, there’s a lot of world out there. Go somewhere new, take a cruise, or plan a family vacation. You don’t have to go anywhere exotic, either — there are enough national parks and local treasures to keep an explorer busy for quite some time. 

4. Join a book club

One of the most common reasons people say they don’t read as much as they’d like is time. Build reading into your new schedule by joining or starting a book club. Reading is an excellent way to challenge your mind and stay on your edge. You could read fiction or nonfiction — whichever you enjoy the most. Any kind of reading will keep your imagination active.

5. Babysit your grandkids

If you’re a grandparent, you’re probably excited to (occasionally) spend some one-on-one time with your grandchildren. The bond grandparents have with their grandkids is the stuff of legend. You (and your young friend) might be able to teach each other a thing or two. 

6. Start a nonprofit

If there's a cause that's close to your heart, consider starting a foundation. Running a charity is challenging work, so it may not feel much like retirement. However, making a difference in an area that’s personally meaningful may outweigh the demands on your time. If starting a nonprofit seems like a huge commitment, try looking for volunteer opportunities near you. 

7. Go back to school

It’s hard to go back to school when you’re working full-time. But college isn’t just for “young people.” Retirement might be the perfect time to further your education. And it might even be free.

Check out local community colleges, which often offer free courses to seniors and retirees. If you’ve had your fill of campus life, see if they offer online courses. You could take wine tasting courses, learn a new language, or even earn a degree.

8. Start a business

You’ve got an entire career’s worth of experience, so consider leaving the 9 to 5 behind and becoming your own boss. A small business could be a great way to monetize a new hobby. If your financial planning has paid off, you won’t have the pressure of earning a living. You can work as much or as little as you like.

9. Trace your family tree

Looking for a fun, engaging project that’s meaningful? Create a detailed family tree. You can make this as simple or involved as you like. Draw a visual representation of your family members, or get an Ancestry account. You can fill out the missing details. Consider interviewing friends and family to create a complete picture of who your family is today.

10. Become a coach

One of the benefits of getting older is perspective. You may find fulfillment in helping others navigate their own careers. Becoming a coach is a great way to stay connected with your industry, make use of all that knowledge you’ve gained, and ease your transition out of the full-time workforce. If you don’t want to coach individuals, there are many businesses that would value your input as an experienced (and well-compensated) consultant.

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What should you not do in retirement?

There’s an endless list of things you can do in retirement, but the one thing you shouldn’t do is nothing. A study published in BMC Public Health found that the longer people sit in idle time, the more anxious they felt. Too much nothing increases the risk of depression and social isolation.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have downtime, because there’s nothing great about busy-ness, either. What you want to look for (pre- and post-retirement) is engagement. And you can be engaged doing seemingly nothing. In fact, many Inner Work practices, like meditation and journaling, might look a whole lot like doing nothing. But they’re vital to understanding how to make your retirement time work for you.

Inner Work is the secret to uncovering what makes you light up. It’s the internal maintenance that keeps you connected to the best parts of who you were at work. Now, though, you can direct that energy and time towards what matters the most to you. Retirement and Inner Work is a recipe for greater fulfillment and engagement — not less.

Key takeaways to enjoy retirement

As you look towards your retirement years, try to consider it as less of an ending and more of a “second act.” No matter what your actual retirement age, these years represent a significant part of your life. 

Retirement deserves the same time, attention, and planning as any other stage of your life or career. It’s an opportunity to grow, contribute to your community, enjoy your family, and have a little fun, too. Deciding what to do in retirement is a way to lean into your values and draw out the parts of your life that are the most important to you.

And if you don’t know how to make the most of your time right away, that’s okay too. It’s a new journey, and some parts are bound to be unfamiliar and a little scary. If you’re really stuck on what to do in retirement, get a mentor or a coach. Someone who’s navigated a career (and maybe even a retirement) may be able to give you the perspective you need. They can help you develop self-awareness, create a game plan, and brainstorm ideas for this new phase of your life.

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Published February 25, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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