For many of us, the idea of retirement seems downright heavenly, a reward for a lifetime of hard work. And for a while, retirement probably will feel like a well-deserved rest, with idle days spent traveling, golfing, and puttering around the house. But these positive aspects of retirement—freedom and leisure—inevitably lose their glow (on average, in less than two years).

Retirement, we start to discover, is a disruptor, with not just one major life change, but a string of them—in your work, your health, your relationships, your finances, and much more. Dealing successfully with these changes—riding the challenging rapids of retirement—requires energetic engagement. Many of us, however, approach retirement with low, vague expectations, unsure about what to do in the last 20 to 30 years of life. Often, we succumb to the idea that our new future will be one of slow-moving ambition and then an easy, slow glide into contentment as the flush of freedom fades.

The reality: Over half of today’s retirees say they are bored and restless. You might also feel isolated and struggle to stay relevant—to yourself and others. And you might find your health suffers, too.

Health problems

Researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed 13 years of results from the Health and Retirement Study, an ongoing study sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration. They found that six years of “complete retirement” increased problems in mobility and daily functioning up to 16 percent, increased illness up to 6 percent, and led to a decline in mental health of up to 9 percent. Many other studies confirm these findings. For example:

Faster cognitive decline. People who retire have a faster rate of cognitive decline, according to researchers at Binghamton University, State University of New York—with the researchers saying that retirement often leads to “mental retirement,” or less mental activity and a decline in memory and other cognitive skills. In a related study of more than 700 people, published in the journal Psychology and Aging, retirees who “disengaged” from goals and difficult tasks had a higher risk of cognitive decline than retirees who stayed engaged.

More sedentary behavior. As part of the Finnish Retirement and Aging Study, researchers found that retirees had significantly more “sedentary behavior”—more time spent sitting, which is a risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and depression.

Shorter life. Delaying retirement by just one year lowers the risk of death by 11 percent, according to researchers from Oregon State University.

The key to minimizing the health risks of retirement is engagement—looking at the last 30 years of your life not as a long rest, but as a creative opportunity for enjoyment and personal growth. You can have an extraordinary retirement.

An extraordinary retirement

First, you need to put aside the question “What’s next?” Our lives are much too complicated to start answering that question. Better questions to ask yourself about retirement are:

  • What could these next decades—perhaps a third of my life—mean to me?
  • What’s left for me to do?
  • How do I want to use my talents?
  • What might living an extraordinary life look like?
  • What would I do for a chance to live life the way I really want?
  • How high will I set my expectations for a well-lived life?
  • How hard will I work to get it?

By asking yourself these types of questions—and answering them with the actions of your life—you put yourself on the path to preventing the big regret that many people experience at the end of life: “I wish I would have lived my life truer to myself.”

Instead, at the end of life, you want to be able to say to yourself, “Well done!” To achieve that level of satisfaction, you can do more in your last third of life than you or anyone expected because, contrary to popular belief, the potential within you does not diminish with age.

Here are several approaches and attitudes that can increase the likelihood of an extraordinary retirement:

Find your truth

This is a key driver in avoiding the big regret. To find your truth, ask yourself this question: How could I move from happy to happier? On a scale of one to 10, the typical happiness “rating” for retirees is six or seven. Well, how do you get to a nine or 10. Your answer to that question becomes your way of living your truth. Perhaps being a better grandparent would make you happier. Perhaps it’s stronger friendships or hking to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. Whatever it is—find your truth and live it.

Find your place

In retirement, where you live is no longer determined by career, family, and responsibilities—now, you can choose to live wherever you like. And that choice is crucially important: Research shows that “place” is the third leg in the triangle of well-being, alongside personal relationships and work.

Choose where you are going to live with care and thought. You may choose to stay where you are because of a deep emotional connection to you home, proximity to family, or the presence of your friends. You may choose to live outside the United States, with over 413,000 American retirees now living abroad. Where in the world (literally) is the best place for you to live? Is your best place one you already love or a place you need to find? What do you need from this place? Where will you thrive?

Research finds that people value several things in the places they live, like beauty, basic services, physical and economic security, a community where you can easily meet new people, and an exciting and creative environment where you can cultivate your individuality.

Find your work.

In retirement, “work” is the intentional commitment of time and talent, whether paid or unpaid. And—surprisingly—work will define the shape of earnest, wholehearted engagement in life after retirement. If you fail to “work”—if you don’t include it as part of the essential platform for daily living—you are facing a life in crisis and gambling on your future well-being.

To find your work, ask yourself, What do I want in return? What is my yield? Priorities can leap out when you ask yourself what return on investment is most important to you.

These additional questions can help you find your work:

  • What might enhance my sense of self, purpose, and meaning?
  • Do I need to generate income?
  • Do I want to create a legacy?
  • Do I want connection, respect, status, friendship, confidence?
  • Do I want opportunities in creativity and generosity?
  • Do I want geographic freedom?
  • Must my work produce continuous learning?
  • Do I seek a sense of community?
  • Do I want a stronger bond with family and friends?

Asking what you want from postretirement work allows you to establish criteria for what may have been missing from your life—and not find yourself at the end of your life with the big regret.

Find your health

Health is the wild card in retirement. But if you have the ambition to live well for the next 30 years, you can invest in your health at 65 and be far better off for it at the age of 90. Research shows the factors of optimizing good health are reassuringly simple:

  • Eat a diet that emphasizes whole, minimally processed foods and reduces highly processed packaged foods.
  • Get regular exercise and physical activity. Whatever you like to do, do it just about every day.
  • Get the amount of sleep you need to feel refreshed and energetic during the day. A key strategy is a consistent bedtime and rising time.
  • Find ways to manage stressful worrying, like practicing deep breathing and mindfulness.
  • Attend to social connections with family and friends.

Find your family and friends

As you get older, your well-being and health depend on connections to other people—research shows that a lack of contact with people can possibly have a greater impact on health than smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity.

And as we learned during the pandemic, you need real people in your life, not images. You need to sit beside them, look into their eyes, and bear-hug some of them. Text, phone, and Zoom do not replace nearness or touch. But there are challenges.

As we get older, our children move away, we lose touch with friends and don’t make new ones, we are separated, divorced, and widowed. In the United States, nearly one-third of all seniors live by themselves—that’s close to 13.8 million seniors aging alone.

But whether you live alone or not, growing and maintaining a strong social network is the work to be done. Now is the time to:

  • Deepen friendships that work for you.
  • Prune friendships that no longer work for you.
  • Make new friends.
  • Establish different arrangements within marriages, when necessary. (For example, many retired spouses are choosing to live by themselves some of the time.)
  • Set boundaries with parents, children, and siblings.
  • Disengage with family members who treat us badly or are disrespectful.

Two helpful things to think about

Often a brother or sister is the person who knows and loves you best. If your sibling is your best friend, are you nurturing that relationship? Or are you ignoring a sibling bond because of something that happened long ago? Find a way to examine the natural bonds that tie you to your siblings.

What type of involvements would be good to explore for you to build connections face to face? Explore alumni organizations, faith communities, performing arts organizations, athletic teams, activism opportunities, lifelong learning events, group travel, and the like.

Don’t Let Ageism Stop You

Ageism and stereotypes are false perspectives that can have a huge effect on your experience of retirement. They lead to misconceptions about your abilities and approach to aging. If you internalize misconceptions about your capabilities and your status, you might believe what you’re hearing—and keep yourself from living a full, extraordinary life because you don’t demand it for yourself.

Ageism often takes the form of microaggressions, the subtle things people say and do that show bias against older people. As soon as you hit 60, it’s time to become ultra-cognizant of cultural messages that lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. Because of ageism, deciding to thrive in the last third of life will take personal determination. You can do it!

Related Articles