Retirement: The Emotional Journey


What happened? I thought it would be SO GREAT!

What do you mean?

You know. It sounded like the perfect fit, everything I wanted.


It’s not.

We’ve all been in this conversation, but what are we actually talking about? Is it a new relationship that’s lost its sizzle? Or maybe a long-awaited job that’s already gone sour? It could even be a new house, an exciting relocation. “It” – that which leaves us wondering “What happened?” could even be that chapter we refer to as “your retirement.” So let’s put this into perspective. First, remember that retirement is a major life change. It comes with its own set of emotional experiences, surprises, and hurdles which can catch us off-guard and unprepared. And yet, sociologist Phyllis Moen notes that people spend more time planning their wedding – typically a one-day affair – than they do the years they spend in retirement. Ouch! With a better understanding of the emotional journey that accompanies retirement, we can expect and prepare for the road that lies ahead.

AgeWave, a thought leader on issues related to aging, suggests that there are five distinct emotional stages that retirees report experiencing. Other researchers corroborate their findings and describe them in similar ways. So, rather than engaging in the magical thinking that will make you ask, “What happened?” or even “What was I thinking?” consider the self-reported experience of others.

The Five Stages of Retirement 

Stage One: Imagination

Don’t most great experiences begin here? Retirement is no different. In the six to fifteen years before retiring, our enthusiasm and excitement begin to grow as we begin to look beyond our working years. At this stage, it is a good idea to start setting some initial goals, such as where we may want to live and how much money we will need in our new lifestyle.

Stage Two: Anticipation

This stage occurs in the one to five years before we retire. At this point, we are initially excited and hopeful. It’s time now to think about the experiences we want to have and how we want to reinvent ourselves when we close the door on our long work life. As the end date nears, it is common for worry and doubt to begin to creep in.

Stage Three: Liberation

This stage covers an entire calendar year and lasts only that long. At this point, we are on our honeymoon as excitement and relief from work stress reign supreme. We tend to reach for pleasures and enjoyments that we’ve long waited for.

Stage Four: Reorientation

We may find retirement more challenging two to five years into retirement than we anticipated because it isn’t what we imagined it would be in Stage One. We may feel bored, disenchanted, or even depressed as the novelty wears off, and we begin to question our identity and our purpose. By addressing those concerns wholeheartedly, we can successfully reinvent ourselves and create a rewarding new life that gives us a sense of fulfillment.

Stage Five: Reconciliation

In this stage, which begins at sixteen years and beyond, we tend to be relatively content, less depressed, and less worried. We are looking at the big picture now and comfortably balancing fun activities with those that bring us a sense of meaning and fulfillment. At the same time, we may also experience sadness as we begin to confront our end-of-life issues.

You might say that we start with the dream, grapple with the reality, and then make peace and find contentment at our journey’s end. In fact, that is exactly what retirees report: 74% of people in the Imagination Stage expect to enjoy their retirement “a great deal.” Sixteen years or so later, 75% are indeed enjoying their retirement “a great deal.” The bottom line: by thoughtfully planning for the practical and emotional journey ahead, people are generally happier in retirement!



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