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Finding Meaning in Retirement

A woman finding meaning in retirement steering a sailboat

After working for decades, retirement is supposed to be your reward—an escape from the daily grind and a chance to enjoy leisurely pursuits. In theory, being retired sounds idyllic, and some people have a clear vision of what they will do, where they will travel, and how they will live in retirement. For others, however, defining this chapter of their lives and finding meaning in retirement can be a struggle.

“Most people do not have adequate plans for what they will do during the 20 to 30 years—7,000 to 10,000 days—after they retire,” says Jerry Cahn, Ph.D., CEO of Age Brilliantly, a community for people who want to live long fulfilling lives. “There are two reasons: we’re bad at planning our futures, and we underestimate the amount of changes that will occur.”

In fact, the retirement age was put in place when the human lifespan was much shorter. Living longer means you get more years in retirement, but you don’t want to do nothing, says Cahn.

“The real problem with retirement is that it’s built on calendars as opposed to life events,” he says. “A study found that we have a good chance to live to be 104. If you’re going to have a 100-year lifespan, what do you do in that period of time? Ultimately, it’s about leading a long, fulfilling life. It’s about being a lifelong learner. You need to have a purpose.”

Why You Need a Purpose

According to a 2020 Edward Jones/Age Wave study, 92% of retirees say purpose is key to finding meaning in retirement, yet one in three new retirees struggles with finding theirs. Purpose changes with time, says John Coleman, author of “The HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose“.

“It’s natural that what gives your life meaning and purpose as a college student or as a mid-career professional will be very different than when you’re a retiree,” he says.

Cahn says purpose requires a new mindset and behaviors. He suggests that retirees take a gap year or sabbatical to figure out what they want to do. “We call it G.R.O.W.T.H. time, which stands for goal reorientation with time for health and happiness,” he says.

How to Find Your Purpose

One of the struggles with retirement is the pressure to find your purpose. Coleman says the problem is a matter of semantics. “How do I find my purpose?” he asks. “That single question contains all of those misconceptions because we’re surrounded by purpose all the time, such as your family, relationships, hobbies, and community involvement.”

The better question is “How do I mine my purpose?” says Coleman “Just like you’d mine a gold mine, how are you going to craft your purpose into something that you can see clearly?” he says.

Start by asking yourself “what sources of purpose are going away now?” he asks. “And what can you embrace in the future that’s going to replace those? Where people struggle in a big transition, such as retirement, is that they’re retiring from something, but they haven’t decided what they’re retiring to.”

Setting goals and reflecting on your sources of purpose can help. Purpose can often be found in what you didn’t do when you were young because everyone told you choosing a career was about survival, adds Cahn. For example, you may have chosen a safe career path, but often longed to do something more creative. Or perhaps you noticed a problem with your industry. Retirement is a good time to go into positions where you can make a difference.

Financial planners warn retirees about not putting off proper financial planning, and Cahn says the same is true about your retirement life.

“When you’re close to retiring, it’s too late to save enough and let the magic of compounding do its job,” he says. “The same goes for addressing what we identify as the five life essentials: health, relationships, passion, purpose, and time. The terrible thing about retirement is getting to the finish point and not thinking about what you want to continue with next.”

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