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6 Steps to Get Emotionally Ready for Retirement

Preparing your finances for life after work is important — but so is preparing your mind

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In 2017, Craig Bradley retired from a career in human resources at the age of 63. After working for 40 years, he was ready to put the early-morning wakeup calls, work emails and draining commute behind him.

“For maybe two to three months I was like, ‘Oh, I’m traveling here,’ and ‘I’m seeing these friends,’ ” he recalls. “But after that initial euphoria started to wane away, I started feeling lost, without purpose — like, ‘What am I going to do with my day?’ ”

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Financial and physical health are often top of mind for those approaching retirement and emotional health is commonly an afterthought. An October 2022 AARP study found that 57 percent of retirees and 41 percent of nonretired adults had never thought about planning for their emotional needs when they stopped working. Nearly half of retired adults said they had given no thought to finding ways to feel fulfilled.

“People often feel very overwhelmed with the idea of retirement,” says Patricia Cavanaugh, a former psychotherapist in the San Francisco Bay Area who became a retirement life coach when she realized there weren’t many resources to help people plan for the psychological effects of leaving the workforce. 

That can lead many to put off thinking about or planning for their post-work life. The AARP survey found that people starting out their retirement planning commonly feel uncertainty and dread. Among the newly retired, boredom, isolation, loneliness and a lack of purpose are common. 

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Craig Bradley [left] and his husband Troy Withers, with their dog Mystique
Courtesy Craig Bradley

Another study found that 28 percent of retirees suffer from depression, a “substantially higher” rate than for the older population at large, according to researchers at the University of Michigan.

For Bradley, add guilt to the list. As he struggled to adjust to feelings of not being “needed” anymore now that he had no work obligations, friends and former colleagues would gush about how lucky he was to be able to retire. 

“You’re already feeling badly, and then you’re feeling badly because you’re feeling badly,” he says.

Why retirement can feel confounding

One reason people may find themselves floundering in retirement is because we’re living longer than past generations and many of us don’t have role models for how to find meaning in the 20 or 30 years after we leave work, says Cavanaugh. Even those who are excited about retiring can experience anxiety if they don’t have a plan to help them make the transition, she adds.

Others struggle because their jobs are a part of their identity, says Mike Drak, author of Longevity Lifestyle by Design: Redefining What Retirement Can Be.  

That’s what happened to Drak when he retired in 2016 after a 38-year career in financial services. Though there were aspects of his job that he didn’t like and was happy to be rid of, he says, “it gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”

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After retiring, he moped around the house for about a year before he realized his job had fulfilled certain psychological needs, such as giving him a sense of purpose and a feeling of belonging. 

“Until I could find new ways of satisfying these needs on a regular basis, I was going to be miserable,” he says. It was only when he started a new chapter, writing books and doing speaking engagements and workshops about retirement lifestyle, that he began to get excited about life again.

Planning for the emotional impact

While we can never know in advance how turbulent our takeoff into retirement will be, we can take steps to increase the odds of a smoother landing. Just as it’s important to create a plan for our finances, we should create a plan for our emotional fulfillment. Here some of the steps experts recommend.

Start early. Begin envisioning what you want your retirement to look like about five years before you expect to retire, Cavanaugh suggests. For example, some people may want to keep working in some capacity. If this is you, early planning can give you time to explore different options, such as entrepreneurship or volunteering with a nonprofit.

Personalize your plan. No two retirees are alike, Drak says. Some people will be happy sitting back and living a life of leisure. Others need to be stimulated by commitments and obligations to meet every day. Ignore what works best for your neighbor and focus on creating opportunities that align with your needs.

Get your emotional and financial plans in sync. Saving regularly in a retirement plan and knowing when to start Social Security are some of the steps that can help ease the transition to living without a paycheck. However, financial planning and psychological planning go hand in hand, Cavanaugh says. 

“Go to your financial planner and say, ‘This is what I want to do with my life for the next 20 years, so I want to tweak my financial plan so it really fits with what my desires are.’ ”

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Find your happy place. If you’re planning to relocate, don’t just base that decision on affordability. “Different areas can provide different lifestyles and different opportunities,” says Allison Levine, a strategist with Suburban Jungle, a New York–based relocation consulting firm.  

Do you want to walk out your front door and have your choice of restaurants? Prefer a quiet neighborhood full of fellow dog-walkers? Test drive a location, Levine suggests, and be sure to “visit different areas of town and chat with people and get a feel for how comfortable you are.” 

Explore passions you never had time for. When Bradley was working, he enjoyed coaching younger executives who were trying to climb the ladder. Since retiring, he has launched his own coaching firm where he does just that. 

He and his husband, Troy Withers, had also dreamed about living abroad, so they leased out their home in Palm Springs, California, and rented a place in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. “We wanted to try an expat lifestyle and so far, so good. We’re enjoying it a lot.”

Consider your relationships. Thinking about how you want to fill your days needs to include the people you’ll be spending them with. If you’re in a couple, talk about what each of you wants from retirement, and plan activities you can enjoy together, Cavanaugh says.

“I recommend that each person has their own third-act plan and that, together, they plan a third act for their coupledom,” she says. 

Also important is to “find your tribes,” Drak says. He has what he calls his “work tribe,” his “swim tribe” and his “bike tribe” — people who share his interests in those areas. 

“It gives us a chance to talk about things and it just keeps us going,” he says. “It keeps us happy. That’s very, very important.”

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