Mental Health Plays an Important Role in Retirement

Before retiring, most people wonder, “How much money will I need?” and “Have I saved enough?” While financial security is essential, experts say people must accumulate more than just money to retire well. Additionally, they should stockpile their emotional reserves.

Many people do not consider the psychological adjustments that accompany this life stage. This can include coping with the loss of your career identity, finding new and engaging ways to stay active, replacing the support networks you had through your work, and spending more time with your spouse than ever before.

It is common for retirees to ease smoothly into retirement, spending more time with their hobbies or family and friends. Others, however, experience anxiety, depression, and debilitating feelings of loss.

In retirement, the cultural norm is that you are living a good life. Psychologists and others have found that working and volunteering during retirement can reduce depression, dementia, and hypertension. Other evidence suggests that these activities aren’t the key to everyone’s well-being. Jacquelyn B. James, PhD, of Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work, has found that only people genuinely engaged in their post-retirement activities benefit psychologically.

To find out what makes people happy, people should spend as much time planning their social or psychological portfolios before retirement.

Working toward well-being

According to psychologists, soon-to-be retirees should consider continuing to work in some capacity. After retiring from their primary careers, many people take on part-time work, a temporary job, or self-employment. This is known as “bridge employment” or “encore work.” A survey found that 60 percent of workers aged 60 and older intend to look for a new job after retiring.

It is evident that working has financial benefits but can also benefit your health and mental well-being. Those who pursued post-retirement bridge employment in their previous fields reported better mental and physical health than those who retired fully, according to a study led by Mo Wang, PhD, of the University of Florida (Journal of Occupational Health Psychology). Despite age differences, employed retirees report similar health, well-being, and life satisfaction levels as those who have not yet retired. Furthermore, working retirees tend to rate their workplaces more positively than non-retired workers.

Furthermore, new research suggests that delaying retirement may prevent cognitive decline. French researcher Carole Dufouil of INSERM presented a study of nearly half a million people at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in July, showing that for each additional year of work, people reduced their dementia risk by 3.2 percent. Despite this, psychologists say it can be challenging to find post-retirement opportunities or stay in the workforce as peers retire.

Even if people are interested, if there are no positions available, or if they don’t have support, it can be difficult, according to psychologist Joann M. Montepare, PhD. 

This is where organizations like Discovering What’s Next, based in Boston, come in, says Montepare. In addition to offering support and resources, the organization aims to help people 55 and older explore a second or post-retirement career and retool their skills. As well as talks on interviewing and networking, the organization offers group discussions on age discrimination, financial insecurities, and loss of identity in the workforce.

Additionally, the organization organizes outreach programs at local businesses and nonprofits for older workers considering retirement or role transitions to increase employer awareness of how to tap and manage older talent.

The pursuit of happiness

Whether retirees return to work or not, research suggests they need guidance on maintaining their well-being. A 2012 study by Elizabeth Mokyr Horner, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, indicates that retirees experience a “sugar rush” of satisfaction and happiness after retirement, followed by a sharp decline. Regardless of retirement age, Horner found that most retirees experienced the rush-crash pattern in her analysis of cross-sectional data from 16 Western European and American countries.

Psychology needs to investigate what causes the crash and how to prolong the sugar rush, according to her. Even if the retirement age rises, people will spend more time retired, and maximizing their happiness is essential.

The answer may lie in encouraging altruism. Case Western Reserve University researchers, led by Eva Kahana, PhD, published a study in June in the Journal of Aging and Health. They found that people in retirement communities involved in low to moderate amounts of volunteer work had higher levels of life satisfaction and fewer symptoms of depression.

In a similar study, Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Sheldon Cohen, PhD, and graduate student Rodlescia Sneed found that older adults with at least 200 hours of volunteer work reported greater psychological well-being than those without. A study published in June in Psychology and Aging examined the relationship between volunteerism and blood pressure for the first time. Volunteering 200 hours over a year reduced the risk of hypertension among older adults.

It is most likely because volunteering makes one more socially connected. As well as increasing feelings of purpose and meaning, Cohen notes that commuting to volunteer sites and activities may also increase physical activity, decreasing the risk of hypertension. As a result, cardiovascular health may be improved.

The Sloan Center’s James stresses that volunteering may not be for everyone. She found that retirees who feel obliged to volunteer do themselves more harm than good. An article in The Gerontologist examined how older adults engage in later-life activities, such as volunteering. Volunteers with low to medium engagement reported significantly lower psychological well-being than those without. In comparison, people who said high engagement had greater psychological well-being.

Knowing the emotional challenges in advance will help retirees cope better.