Working people often picture retirement as a time of perpetual leisure. They expect to play golf, read books, travel and do all the other pleasurable things that they never found enough time for during their careers. But when these people actually retire, many are surprised by how bored and unfulfilled those leisurely retirements leave them.

The idea that leisure activities alone can produce an enjoyable retirement is out-of-date. In the early 20th century, most retirees had only a few years of declining health remaining after lifetimes of hard labor. For them, relaxation and leisure were just what the doctor ordered. But today’s retirees often have decades of healthy years remaining. Leisure alone isn’t enough to get them through it. Even the word “retirement” is out-of-date. It implies disengagement and evokes images of being put out to pasture.

Here are the three elements of a satisfying “retirement”…


Leisure activities alone might not be enough for a fulfilling retirement, but they certainly have their place. If you always have dreamed of fishing seven days a week… buying season tickets to the symphony or the ballpark… or traveling extensively, then by all means do so. But don’t be surprised if these leisure activities are not as enjoyable as they were when you were working. If you start to get bored, consider these possibilities…

  • You enjoyed these things mainly because their relaxing nature served as a counterbalance to the stresses of the workplace. Now that you aren’t working, they don’t serve this purpose.
  • You find these places and activities fun only in small doses. The quaint little town that was the perfect spot for weeklong vacations might not provide enough variety to keep you entertained as a full-time resident.
  • It may not be the leisure activity itself that you enjoyed but some aspect related to it that’s now missing. Maybe you enjoyed renting a boat on summer weekends, not because you loved boating but because your grandkids came along on your trips. Buy a boat, and your grandkids might not be able to join you as often as you had hoped.

What to do: Ask yourself what, in particular, makes your favorite leisure activities fun for you. Is it what you are doing? Where you are doing it? With whom you are doing it?

Avoid making large financial commitments to any leisure activity until you have confirmed and reconfirmed that your interest won’t wane when you devote lots of time to it in retirement. Rent big-ticket items, such as boats, RVs and vacation homes, for several extended periods (a week or two is not long enough) before purchasing them.

A wide range of companies market leisure products to retirees — but whether they’re selling backyard pools or recreational vehicles, their advertisements inevitably focus less on the products being offered than on how the products will allow buyers to share happy times with their friends and family members. What these marketers don’t admit is that you might enjoy spending time with these people just as much without their products.


When retirees feel there’s “something missing” in their lives, that something often is engagement. Being engaged means being actively involved in something, not just watching things happen. The difference between pleasure and engagement is the difference between attending a ball game and joining a sports team… or between listening to a symphony and learning to play an instrument. It’s investing ourselves in life and getting back more than we put in. Engagement supplies an element of challenge without which life becomes boring.

During our working lives, we’re most likely to experience engagement in the workplace. Even if we didn’t love a job, it probably provided interesting challenges and opportunities for growth.

Postcareer engagement can be found in gardening… woodworking… photography… a part-time job… or thousands of other hobbies or activities.

What to do: To find the most rewarding challenges for your retirement, think about the occasions when you have been most engaged in the past…

  • When did time seem to fly by? When did you get so caught up in a certain activity that you didn’t notice the passing hours? When time seems to have flown, you’ve been engaged.
  • What are your greatest skills and strengths? We tend to feel most engaged when we put our skills and strengths — to use. The Web site can help you identify strengths that you didn’t even realize you had. (The site is free, but registration is required.)
  • Which aspects of your career gave you the greatest sense of accomplishment? Perhaps you can replicate some of these activities in retirement.

Example: A retired supervisor felt most engaged when he was providing honest and accurate performance reviews that helped younger workers find their ideal career paths. To recapture that engagement in retirement, he volunteered as a guidance counselor at a local business school.


As people age, they are increasingly likely to question whether their lives have had meaning. When the answer is no, the result often is despair. Retirement can be a major blow for such people. If they never found meaning during their careers, they may now fear that it’s too late to ever do so.

Retirement also can be a blow to those who feel their lives did have meaning. They might have found meaning in their ability to support their family… or in a career that made the world a better place. But because their sense of meaning was tied closely to their careers or paychecks, retirement robs them of purpose.

What to do: Fortunately, retirees still have plenty of time to discover a sense of meaning, whether or not they believe they had one before. We often find meaning when we serve causes greater than ourselves. Help your neighbors or local community groups… enter politics… mentor a young person… take a more active role in your church… volunteer with a charity… or start a business to bring jobs or necessary services to your area.

The only firm rule is that the cause must be meaningful to you. It can take years to discover the cause that’s right for you, so don’t get discouraged. Ask yourself what causes you care about and how you can help. Experiment until you find your answer.

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