Retirement: Seek Happiness and Fulfillment


The good news is that there is no “script” for retirement. At the same time, the mere absence of a daily plan, a reliable roadmap, and a tightly-packed schedule might just freak you out! This is especially true if you’ve worked a 40-plus hour work week for as long as you can remember. Not to mention that your work life came along with its own sources of happiness – friendships, 401k plans, and Happy Hours, to name a few. It came with its own sources of fulfillment, too – you knew that your work mattered to others and was a mirror, a positive reflection of you. That’s why for many, there is an inherent ambivalence about retirement. We wonder about how we will spend our time and if we will be bored; but more importantly, we are concerned about how we will secure both happiness and fulfillment in retirement.

All of these responses are normal and natural. The key is to avoid getting stuck in a fretful loop of thought. Instead, “Ms. CEO,” remember that you are in charge of what’s next. Assuming that you have gotten a handle on life’s practical matters, it’s now time to dream, to plan, and to experiment.  Consider the following:

Create a vision board

Visualization is powerful; it is a tool you may have already used effectively to manage your career. When we visualize, we see ourselves “already there,” which creates clarity while motivating us to move forward. You can certainly create a vision board on Pinterest, but you might consider going old school with a piece of white cardboard or construction paper. Using this more tactile approach, you’ll first gather your supplies: magazines, photographs – even small symbolic things – along with your scissors, tape, and glue. I am a huge nature-lover, so a bird’s feather from my backyard is something you’d find on my vision board.

Think in terms of how you want to spend your time and the activities you want to pick up again or discover for the first time. Then, either dive right in and start cutting and pasting to create your retirement vision montage, or instead, first name your vision. I’ve seen people call their vision board “My Time,” or “Fun First,” or “Full Circle.” Remember that it is YOUR retirement, so you decide! If you get stuck, google “activities in retirement” or similar phrases for an infusion of new ideas.

While this should be an exhilarating adventure, consider this science-based tip to keep you grounded: the most effective vision boards are those that combine words and pictures of what you want as well as how you will get there. Psychotherapist Amy Morin notes that, “Positive thinking only works when it’s combined with positive action.” So, if you want to cultivate an envy-worthy rose garden when you retire, consider adding a photo of a book you’ll read or a course you’ll take so that your rosy vision has a better chance of becoming a rosy reality. The same applies if you have a fitness goal: be sure to add the specific “how” and you are more likely to achieve your goal.

Ask yourself the “right” questions

For most of us, retirement reintroduces questions around happiness and fulfillment. Keep in mind that happiness is about satisfying your needs and wants while fulfillment is purposeful; it is about the contribution you want to make to others, the legacy you want to leave behind. These are deeply-personal questions, and you now have the perspective of age and experience to inform how you respond. Here is a sampling of happiness and fulfillment-invoking questions to consider:

  • What would my “ideal day” look like?
  • What did I love doing most as a child?
  • What knowledge, skill, or interest do I want to resume or explore for the first time?
  • If money weren’t an issue, what would I be doing?
  • If I knew I had 15 summers left, how would I spend them?
  • What skill or gift do I have that I want to “give back”?
  • How do I want to be remembered by the people I care most about?

Don’t be surprised if responding to these questions prompts you to make a few revisions to your vision board, so be sure to update it!

Embrace Experimentation

Without the built-in structure of the workday and the work week, many retirees find themselves frittering away their time, feeling aimless and frustrated. As a result, they are not reaping the happiness and fulfillment that retirement can offer. To avoid that trap, you can do these two things:

  • Create a reason to get out of bed in the morning
  • Establish a routine

At first, finding a reason to get out of bed might be easy because you simply relish the freedom that the day ahead promises. But soon thereafter, when the novelty becomes the norm, your feelings are likely to shift. So, go back to your vision board for inspiration. Zero in on one or two things, then identify one or two concrete steps you can take that day to help bring those aspects of your vision to life. There is no rule book for this, so be creative. Maybe it’s: “research local gardening groups to find a class on growing a rose garden” and “find or start a neighborhood book club.”

The second part of embracing experimentation is establishing some form of routine. Decide on your new bookends: the time you get up and the time you go to sleep. Then fill in at least a few of the hours in-between with activities related to what you have already decided to focus on. Remember that those intentions are mere vaporware until you take action to bring them into your life.

Stay tuned for Part Three of this series, “Retirement: Prepare for the Emotional Journey.”  


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