I started the research for this article with a premise that retirement was probably bad for one’s physical, mental and emotional health. My initial hypothesis seemed to be supported by a large study of Dutch men. From 2009 to 2013 the Dutch government provided a financial incentive for men to work from ages 61 to 63. The study compared those who worked from ages 61 to 63 to those who had retired, and investigated the all-cause mortality of both groups in the subsequent five years. The researchers found that 6% of the working men had died compared to 8% of the retired men. The absolute difference of 2% may not sound impressive but mortality for retired men was 25% higher on a relative basis. (1)
This was a large study across all of the Netherlands and the researchers had access to and analyzed many variables. After sorting through the data, the researchers concluded that working not only correlated with but actually “caused” the improvement in mortality though they could not explain why or how working caused the better outcome.
However, this result is not seen in all studies of retirees. A meta-analysis published in July 2022 in the Journal of Economic Surveys summarized the literature related to the impact of retirement on health. Their analysis consisted of 308 observations from 85 articles published in peer-reviewed journals from 2000 through 2021. Their analysis showed that only 12% of the observations reported evidence showing poorer health after retirement. 28% of the observations supported the opposite hypothesis where retirement improved health. The other 60% of the observations provided no statistically significant effects of retirement on health. (2)
Given the mixed reviews in the scientific literature, I wondered what is or are the variables that produce good retirement health outcomes.
Five years ago, I decided to give retirement a try at age 55. My retirement was not well planned as I was coming off of a bad work experience. I was in a financial position to quit so I did. I sold all of my belongings, moved to the Big Island of Hawaii and landed at a yoga retreat center as a volunteer. The volunteers all had jobs and I chose to work in the kitchen. I could have stayed there indefinitely, and many people did, but after three months I decided to move on because I was bored. I went to Ecuador based on a suggestion from my roommate, but my ten weeks in Ecuador convinced me that retirement, this way, was not the right decision for me.
A 2008 Japanese study set out to understand what variable or variables most impacted mortality. The researchers spent seven years studying the lives of more than 43,000 Japanese adults in Sendai. They captured many variables including age, gender, education, body mass index, cigarette use, alcohol consumption, exercise, employment, perceived stress, etc. When they sorted the data looking for the strongest correlation of the variables to mortality, one stood out. 95% of the people with “ikigai” were alive. Only 83% of those without this quality survived. (3)
What is ikigai? Ikigai is the Japanese word for having a reason to live.
In the Harvard Business Review article “Why Retirement Is a Flawed Concept,” author Neil Pasricha suggests, “We don’t actually want to retire and do nothing. We just want to do something we love.” (4) I extend this idea to everyone. Everyone wants to do something they love and many people do something they love to do, but clearly not everyone does.
Pasricha’s article offers four suggestions to bring ikigai to one’s life. He calls them the four S’s: social, structure, stimulation and story (an “s” word for purpose). Based on my experience, we need all four. In Hawaii I had socialization and structure, but I did not have sufficient stimulation or story. I came to the same conclusion at the time. Wandering around the planet without a purpose was, at least to me, pointless.
Reflecting on the Dutch study, perhaps the Dutch researchers were looking at the wrong variables. Work often, but not always, provides socialization, structure, stimulation (sometimes too much) and can provide story or purpose. I suspect that mortality followed ikigai (purpose) even more closely than working vs retirement.
Anyone can change their circumstances at any time, but retirement is a unique opportunity to pivot as changes are often expected and embraced by people when they transition to this stage of life. Based on my experience, I suggest that the most important aspects of retirement planning include thinking through, planning, and verifying the components of the four S’s to set yourself up with something you love to do and the right context to do it.
If you are not sure of what you love to do, verification is important before you commit to it. You do not want to assume golfing every day will be sufficient stimulation and purpose for you even if you sometimes enjoy it. If needed, find a way through actual practice to test your ideas. For example, spend a month playing golf five days a week. Notice how this feels. Only you can decide if this is your passion. You may decide that working, perhaps in a different context, is a better option for you than full retirement.
Here are suggestions for thinking through the four S’s. (5)
Building social connections takes time and effort. Don’t wait until retirement to do this. Be patient, consistent, and proactive. Consider the following:
- Join community groups, church or clubs
- Take or teach classes
- Attend workshops or networking events
- Utilize technology to reach people
- Travel and explore
- Prioritize communication with old and new friends
- Stay curious and open-minded
Structure in Life
Creating a daily, weekly and monthly structure before and during retirement can help you maintain a sense of purpose, productivity, and overall wellbeing. Here are some suggestions to help establish a meaningful structure:
- Establish a daily routine
- Plan regular social engagements
- Prioritize physical activities and mental wellbeing
- Experiment with volunteering or working part-time
- Plan for downtime and relaxation
- Embrace flexibility
Regularly evaluate your structure and make necessary adjustments. Life circumstances and priorities may change, so periodically reassess your goals, activities, and routines to ensure they align with your evolving needs and desires.
Right Amount of Stimulation
Having the optimal amount of stimulation (not too little and not too much) before and during retirement is crucial for maintaining mental agility, engagement, and a sense of fulfillment. Here are some strategies to help achieve an optimal level of stimulation:
- Pursue diverse interests
- Seek out social interactions
- Embrace lifelong learning
- Stay physically active
- Travel and explore
- Engage in creative pursuits
- Challenge your mind
- Balance routine and novelty
- Practice mindfulness and meditation
- Listen to music, watch movies, or attend cultural events
Remember, the optimal amount of stimulation varies for each individual. Pay attention to your own needs, preferences, and energy levels. Find balance between stimulation and rest, ensuring that you have enough downtime for relaxation and rejuvenation. Adapt these strategies to fit your interests and personality, and be open to exploring new avenues of stimulation as you embrace retirement.
Creating a story or meaning for your life is a deeply personal and subjective endeavor. Reflect on your values, passions, and desires to craft a narrative that gives purpose and direction to your life before and during retirement. Here are some suggestions to help you in this process:
- Reflect on your values
- Explore your passions
- Set meaningful goals
- Embrace personal growth
- Cultivate relationships
- Give back to others
- Find your unique voice
- Embrace spirituality or mindfulness
- Embrace life transitions
- Embrace change and see it as a chance to redefine your purpose and meaning
- Live in alignment with your story
- Actively shape your life to reflect the narrative you desire
Remember, creating a story or meaning for your life is an ongoing process. It may evolve and change as you grow and experience new phases of life. Do not assume a passion is real for you until you validate it. Be open to exploration, adapt your narrative when necessary, and allow yourself the freedom to create a meaningful story that resonates with you.
Written by Greg Damian: I am a 60-year-old author, motivational speaker and health and fitness disruptor. My book, Abs at 60: The Four Steps to Look and Feel Younger at Any Age, was recently released on Amazon.
- I used ChatGPT to provide additional support for the four S’s
Written by Greg Damian.