Finding Meaning After Retirement: Why You Should Have a Purpose and How To Find It
Retirement is the day most people look forward to during their decades-long careers—that day around age 65 when you get to pack up your office and bring your daydreams of long afternoons golfing or traveling for months to fruition.
But what many people don’t realize is that retirement also has its downsides—namely, people can become listless or lose their sense of purpose after so many productive years in the workforce. Not only can this cause mental or emotional issues in some people, but a loss of purpose post-retirement can also lead to cognitive loss, physical health declines, and sometimes even shorter lifespan.
Fortunately, paid work isn’t the only way to find meaning or satisfaction in this world. In fact, many people find retirement to be a way to ignite a renewed sense of purpose in their lives—sort of like a “fresh start” to your golden years that are rife with opportunity.
6 Reasons to Focus on Having a Purpose After Retirement
If you’ve been working a backbreaking, burnout-inducing job that you hate for the past 40 years, it’s likely that retirement will be a weight off your shoulders that leads to better mental and physical health. But for many people, stopping work at a job they enjoyed (or tolerated) is a significant life transition that can lead to feelings of listlessness or emptiness, causing a range of health-related concerns.
Whether or not you’re happy to say goodbye to cubicles and breakroom coffee, the main driver of a successful retirement is having a strong sense of purpose, which can affect mental health, cognitive function, physical health, and more.
1. Improved Mental and Emotional HealthThere is conflicting research about whether or not retirement benefits mental health. If you worked a high-stress job with long hours and a traffic-heavy commute, it’s likely that retirement led to reductions in stress or anxious feelings—at least at first. But after a year or two of sleeping in and aimlessly going about your day, mental health issues—including increases in depressive symptoms—can start to creep back in.
According to research published in Global Health Research and Policy, the “honeymoon phase” of retirement ends after two years, and people start to adapt to their new schedules and way of life. The anticipation of retirement was also found to have a greater benefit to mental health than retirement itself—that exciting countdown to your new relaxing life. Having a sense of purpose can provide structure and meaning after the honeymoon phase is over, helping to combat any negative mental health issues, like stress, depressive symptoms, apathy, or anxious feelings, thereby improving overall emotional well-being.
2. Keeps Your Brain ActiveNo matter your profession, you had to use your brain in some way or another throughout your day-to-day work. Like all muscles, our brain also goes by the “use it or lose it” theory—without mental stimulation, your cognitive functioning can start to deteriorate. As retirement coincides with the age of higher susceptibility to cognitive decline, it’s especially imperative to keep your mind sharp and stimulated post-retirement.
While not every purpose-filled activity has to engage your brain, including things like reading, learning new hobbies or languages, playing word games, and even socializing with friends can help to keep your cognitive abilities sharp.
3. Improved Physical Health
Having a sense of purpose in retirement can also benefit your physical health. If you went from a relatively active day job to your only exercise being a trip to the mailbox and back, you may experience physical changes like weight gain or muscle loss. Research shows that women are more likely to gain weight upon retirement, especially if they previously worked a blue-collar job.
Conversely, using your newfound free time to join a fitness class, take up an active hobby, or focus on strength training to support your muscles, joints, and bones with age can significantly benefit your physical health. Plus, studies have found that moderate physical activity after retirement can reduce the risk of depressive symptoms—especially in women.
4. Increased Lifespan
Finding meaning and purpose after exiting the workforce can even help you live longer. A study published in Preventive Medicine in 2022 followed over 13,000 adults in the U.S. for eight years after they retired. The researchers found that people with a higher sense of purpose had significantly lower rates of all-cause mortality. Women were the most likely to live longer when they had a strong sense of purpose, with a 34% risk reduction of all-cause mortality (compared to a 20% risk reduction in men) over the 8-year study.
This increase in lifespan may also have to do with your post-retirement mindset. Another study found that people who associated retirement with positive stereotypes about physical health—like being “mobile” instead of “immobile” and “busy” instead of “idle”—had increased survival by 4.5 years.
5. Sense of Identity
If you derived your sense of identity from your career, you may be more likely to experience feelings of loss or emptiness post-retirement. Seeking a new purpose can improve that lost sense of meaning, productivity, or accomplishment.
6. Improved Social Ties
It’s well-known that strong social ties and relationships are linked to longevity and better health. After retirement, filling your free time with seeing old friends, making new friends, or contributing to community-based organizations can help combat any loneliness or boredom you may feel after not being surrounded by coworkers and rigid schedules every day. Adding purposeful, social-based activities that contribute to a cause or help others can also deepen your sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in your daily life.
How to Find Meaning and Purpose After Retirement
Finding meaning and purpose after you retire can lead to a happier and more fulfilled life—but how do you go about it? Here are some ideas to lead a more purposeful life in your cubicle-less golden years.
- Think About Your Interests. What makes you feel fulfilled and happy will likely differ from your neighbors or friends. Take some time to think about what makes you feel accomplished, content, or satisfied at the end of the day. Some people may feel deep fulfillment from volunteering at a library, while others may need to see sunshine and want to find outdoor activities. Thinking about your core values and passions—it can also be helpful to think about what you loved to do as a child or young adult—is the first step to finding meaning after retirement.
- Join Social Groups. Maintaining or creating social ties and relationships is one of the best ways to feel fulfilled during retirement. If you don’t already have a solid social group, try joining new clubs or classes based on your interests—like book clubs, hiking clubs, running/walking groups, gardening clubs, or cooking classes. Now is also a great time to reengage with lost friends by joining alumni associations or reconnecting with friends from high school or college.
- Volunteer. Volunteering helps to give back to your community, strengthen social ties, and provide a sense of purpose. Similar to the other tips, volunteering for organizations you feel passionate about will be the most meaningful, so think about what causes matter to you.
- Explore New Hobbies. Retirement is an excellent time to explore new hobbies that you may not have had time for in the past. From painting and pottery to baking and birdwatching, there is something for everyone—we all have different interests, so don’t force yourself to do a hobby you don’t love, which won’t be as meaningful for driving purpose.
- Continue Learning. As mentioned, retirement can cause a loss of cognitive functioning due to a lack of mental stimulation. Keeping your mind sharp and engaged with continual learning—whether in a traditional class form or on your own—can help to support a purpose-filled life. Similar to hobbies, learning about something you care about or are curious about is best.
- Go To Exercise Classes. Maintaining physical health is just as crucial as maintaining cognitive health. Exercise or fitness classes have multi-fold benefits—they improve physical functioning, benefit mental health, and can help with social connections.
- Travel. No more “two weeks per year” only—now you have the time to travel as long and as far as you’d like. Not only is travel exciting, but it also is cognitively demanding (just try driving on the wrong side of the road or attempting to order dinner in another language), an opportunity for learning about new cultures, and can deepen relationships.
- Become a Mentor. Lastly, if you were a leader or expert in your field, mentoring younger people in your profession can help you find meaning. This is especially true if you miss your job—or aspects of it—as sharing your knowledge with younger members of your field can reengage your brain with the elements of your career that you enjoyed.
Retirement is a much-anticipated time for most people—but after the honeymoon phase is over, many can find themselves experiencing boredom or listlessness if they don’t find satisfaction in their new life. Without finding a purpose, your post-retirement years may lead to declines in physical, mental, and cognitive health. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to start adding meaning to your life today, including strengthening social ties with community groups, volunteering, traveling, learning, and mentoring.
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