Maybe you are a “realist” and not quite as happy as you could be. You're not alone. Lots of people are just like you and, one day, realize something is missing. More often than not, happiness in retirement becomes elusive because it is a choice not a given. This is Jim’s story....
Their unusual friendship had survived the decades, she the cheerful optimist and he the consummate pessimist. It had been ages since they had last gotten together and Sue noticed Jim was not his usual self. No complaining about the lunchtime menu, the waitress service, or anything else for that matter. She sensed her friend had something important to share when he suddenly blurted out “I was so angry after they retired me”.
She was at a complete loss of words, for 30 years he hated and complained about his job. Apparently, his employer downsized older employees paying out generous settlements. He should be happy. Instead, Jim talked about how much he missed work, his co-workers, and was bored. The endless hours of emptiness quickly became unbearable and got to the point where he went for help. Jim learned that being happy is a choice and ultimately, he was responsible.
You may have noticed that some people seem happy most of the time and others not so much. There is no “happiness fairy” sprinkling happy dust. In fact, whether you are happy or not is your choice. Good and bad things happen to all of us. How we choose to deal (or not deal) with these things is what determines how happy your retired life will be.
Having said that, negative events impact us much more than positive ones. For example, let’s say that on your drive home an idiot driver swerves into your lane completely cutting you off and then proceeds to give you the finger. Later on, another motorist seeing that you are trying to merge into traffic, makes room, and waves you into their lane. When you get home, the chances are you will still be fuming about the jerk that cut you off and completely forget about the good driver.
This is called a negativity bias. Back in the caveman days, it was a competitive advantage to be highly attuned to danger. Survival of the fittest sometimes meant recognizing danger and running like heck! Our ancestors suffered famine, war, floods, drought, and much more. Survival required awareness of all potential threats and taking immediate action. Effectively, our brains are still hard-wired that way and negative events override positive ones which tend to quickly fade.
There is scientific evidence that suggests some people are genetically predisposed to being less happy. They are usually the ones that see the glass as half empty. That doesn’t mean they don’t experience the feeling; they just need to work a little harder at it.
Our life experiences also impact our ability to find joy. Lots of stuff happened during our formative years that may taint our view of the world. Maybe our parents weren’t quite as loving as they could have been or we were bullied and teased by other kids. Events that we prefer not to remember and have blocked out.
The truth is most of us have some unresolved issues that limit our feelings of love and acceptance. We have all heard people state that “the past is the past” and chose to deny that long-ago events may still affect how they respond in the present. Obviously dwelling on the past is unhealthy, yet denial can hold us back from experiencing the joy and contentment that we all deserve. So, how can we achieve more happiness in retirement?
Becoming happier is a conscious choice and ultimately, you are the only one responsible. Besides feeling good, it is proven that happier people have better relationships, improved mental health, and live longer healthier lives.
Throughout your career, whether you realized it or not, you had a sense of purpose. It might have been the satisfaction derived from work, raising children, or just the need to earn money. Regardless, it got you out of bed and kept you busy each day.
The first thing most new retirees do is turn off their alarm clocks. After 30 plus years of work, they are no longer on someone else's schedule. They have earned the right to do what want and when they want. For the first weeks and months, this feels wonderful. Unfortunately, boredom quickly sets in if you have nothing important to look forward to. Your hours may become filled with meaningless activity and puttering about.
The majority of new retirees’ struggle with developing a sense of purpose after retiring. Most books suggest finding an interest, a hobby, or becoming a volunteer. In short, explore your childhood passions and interests that you never had the opportunity to do. This might include becoming an artist, a musician, or some other such interest. Most of us are going to struggle with this as we attempt to find a fulfilling hobby.
Instead, think in terms of doing something that is larger than yourself that makes a difference for others. This could be part-time work or volunteering in something that you enjoy and interacting / helping other people.
If you don’t love yourself, how can you expect anyone else to love you? Self-love is developing authentic unconditional acceptance of yourself. We are all imperfect and it is easy to sabotage ourselves with doubts and insecurities. It really becomes a life long journey taken one step at a time to becoming a better you.
The pathway to self-love begins with your relationship with yourself. Embracing that you are worthy of respect and kindness and treating yourself just like you would treat a loved one. Actions speak louder than words and your daily behaviors reflect how you value yourself. Things like getting more exercise, eating better, proper sleep, and occasionally rewarding yourself.
The second step is recognizing the human condition is not always rainbows and unicorns. We all have our darker days and negative thoughts / feelings can consume us. This is part of who we are and it is normal to occasionally feel down. Accept that we all have flaws, make stupid mistakes, learn and bounce back.
The third step is asking yourself the question “Who am I?” On the surface, that is an easy question. Yet, as you delve deeper, it becomes more difficult as few of us truly understand and fully accept ourselves. Understanding at a deeper level who you really are is necessary to truly love yourself. You are unique and special with no one else in the world quite like you. Self-love is unconditional acceptance of yourself and striving to always be the best you.
If a close friend was suffering through a tough time; you would likely be supportive, show compassion, and kindness. Very few people would mercilessly criticize their flaws, weaknesses, and personal failings. We are our own worst enemy as that is exactly what many of us do to ourselves.
Self-compassion and kindness require the same gentleness to yourself that you give to others. Rather than beating yourself up, recognize your flaws and limitations from a realistic and objective perspective. We all make mistakes and experiencing life's difficulties is inevitable. Reflect on what you might have done better, accept the reality, and move forward. Be gentle on yourself and continually learn and grow.
We are our own harshest critics (inner bully) and each of us has an inner voice reminding us of our inadequacies and shortcomings. It may sound like the voice of a parent, a brother or sister, or some other authority figure making you feel not worthy. For some of us, that voice is more strident and ever present. To outsmart the inner critic, you need to become aware of it and quieten those negative judgments.
A powerful way of dealing with this is to agree with the critical part of the thought that is true and avoid the self-criticism. For instance, "I can’t believe I ate that tub of ice cream". This leads to I am weak, have no control, and will never lose weight. Instead acknowledge that while you ate the ice cream, you will do better next time. To resolve negative self talk, it is helpful to journal it as the inner critic loses leverage of your emotions. Often fears and anxieties stem from an event in the past and understanding this can start putting the voice to rest.
Self-worthiness is the acceptance and belief that you are deserving of love and to be treated with respect. Low self-worth is associated with feeling inferior and accepting that you do not deserve better. All too often people try to compensate through external measures. It is not your net worth, how important you were at work, or even how many friends you have. Each of us is worthy of love, respect, and healthy connection with others.
Another helpful practice is a daily affirmation. Writing out something such as “I love myself and deserve to be loved”. Say it out loud each day or whenever you are feeling a bit down. Allow yourself to feel it.
The three “S” words (self-worth, self-love, and self-compassion) are interrelated. Our past experiences have shaped who we are today. Moving forward, who you are now is the basis to build upon who you will become in the future.
Living in the present moment is giving your complete and undivided attention to what is happening all around you. This is also referred to as “mindfulness”. Some studies suggest we spend about half our time mentally detached. Thoughts pop into our heads and our minds are off wandering, (Squirrel). The real issue is we are missing out on what is happening at the moment and all around us.
Feelings of fearfulness and anxiety reflect that you are focused on the future. Alternatively, feelings of remorse and depression occur from memories of the past. Only in the present can true change take place and joy be found.
In spite of decades of research, we have only scratched the surface on understanding the power of the mind. It is estimated that we have 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts each day. That is, roughly, one thought every 1.2 seconds! We know that visualization improves performance and achievement of goals. Likewise, meditation is used to practice mindfulness and heighten awareness. This regains control of thought processes and quiets the mind of distractions. Both techniques train the mind to focus and remain in the present.
Dwelling on the past is self destructive. Nothing can be done to change it and holding onto anger for months or even years becomes toxic. It is like taking poison and somehow expecting the person who wronged you will suffer. Forgiveness and letting go of past slights regains peace of mind.
Fretting about the future is equally destructive. Will I outlive my savings? (for more details, see Baby Boomer Facts) What if my health declines? Will I be happy? Fears and anxieties will rob you of any happiness in retirement. I am not saying that these are not legitimate concerns. In fact, if you have reason for concern, you should be taking action today to minimize these outcomes.
Cultivating a positive outlook is also part of living in the present. It doesn’t mean ignoring life’s troubles. In fact, people with a positive attitude deal with these difficulties more effectively.
In contrast, negative thinkers tend to whine and complain while avoiding the issue. We each have free choice. If you look for the good and take the time to stop and smell the roses, you will find more satisfaction. When you think back, it is usually the little things that stood out the most. Sunday suppers, family game nights, or sitting around a campfire may be part of those special memories. So, what are you grateful for? Take a minute or two each day and remind yourself what you are thankful for and why. Besides feeling good, it focuses you on what is important.
Ultimately, it really is your choice to be happy or not, especially understanding that happy joyful people live longer and healthier lives. There are many studies that document a reduction in blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Also, mental health is improved because of less stress, anxiety, and depression.
Being present, taking care of yourself, finding purpose and remaining positive all work in conjunction to ensure you make these the best years of your life. With longer life expectancy, it makes sense to live a life with enjoyment and satisfaction. It is up to you to choose how your life in the golden years will look.