Retirement Happiness: Is Achievement the Missing Ingredient?

You certainly see recurring themes when you read articles about “how to have a happy retirement.” The most important factors are generally accepted to be health and relationships. Other important items on the list include exercise, hobbies, and financial security. However, one of the most overlooked determinants of happiness is achievement.

Retirees no longer have the opportunity to earn promotions, bonuses, workplace awards, and raises that affirm they are doing a good job. Is it possible that the regular accomplishment of meaningful goals is their missing “happiness” ingredient for many retirees?

The Irony of Retirement:

There is a bit of irony here. Most workers look forward to the freedom that retirement affords, so they can spend time however they wish. No deadlines, customers, unreasonable bosses, and the stress that comes with having a job. Unfortunately, many retirees feel an unexpected let-down once that stress is gone. I have written previously about the increased probability of clinical depression soon after retirement. Do these depressed, bored, or anxious retirees miss their jobs, or do they miss the feeling of achievement that comes with 40 hours of focused work per week?

Research in positive psychology has found that people are usually happier when they feel like they are learning new things and making progress toward their goals. Most people have goals. They are not always SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic, and Timely), but most people have an idea of what they are trying to accomplish. A period of pride and contentment occurs once a goal is achieved. However, that feeling fades with time, and people then get used to the new normal. This process is known as hedonic adaptation.

Is always “seeking” or wanting more a good thing?

Jaak Panskepp wrote in his book, Affective Neuroscience, that of seven core instincts in the human brain (anger, fear, panic-grief, maternal care, pleasure/lust, play, and seeking), seeking is the most important. The innate human desire to seek means that we can never truly feel that every desire and wish has been met. There will never be an end to the to-do list, future goals and plans, and the things we want to achieve and see. But the fact that we don’t have everything we want is exactly what makes life interesting and fulfilling.

Some psychologists and self-help coaches would suggest that the key to a happy retirement is to learn to be content with the life you have and what you have already accomplished. However, it seems to me that that suggestion ignores the fact that the pursuit of the goal (the work) is in and of itself, fulfilling. Maybe always wanting something more is a good thing?

The bottom line is you do not need to set audacious stressful goals to feel productive and be happy. However, I would encourage you to keep a list of new things you are trying, learning, and doing. Remember to savor every achievement (no matter how small) and most importantly…enjoy the journey.

Have a great week.