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The Big Problem New Retirees Run Into

There's a real difference between being busy and being fulfilled

As a retirement planning coach, I often find new retirees making a common error: they mistake the joy of being retired with being fulfilled in retirement.

After the euphoria of, “Yay! I don’t have to go to work today!” wears off, recent retirees often feel an overall sense of loss. Specifically, common feelings are:

  • A lack of social interaction
  • A lack of purpose
  • A feeling you’ve reached your peak and are no longer needed
  • A feeling of being disconnected from society

The most common remedy, people think, is filling up the new free time with pleasures. And while pleasures are important, they don’t satisfy a lack of purpose. With a life expectancy of 10 to 30 years more than in the past, that’s a long time to go without purpose or fulfillment.

When I dig deeper with clients who have been retired a year or more, I often discover a life that’s void of true fulfillment and purpose.

Busy Versus Fulfilled

When asked how they’re doing in retirement, the answer people often give is something like this: “I’m busy! I have my grandkids, tennis, the condo association meeting, shopping, movies, my garden and we’re planning a cruise this summer. I don’t know when I found time to work!”

Yes, these people are busy and even experiencing pleasures —and maybe that’s satisfying enough for the short term. But (you knew there was a “but” coming), when I dig deeper with clients who have been retired a year or more and ask questions that scratch below the surface, I often discover a life that’s void of true fulfillment and purpose.

“I used to be somebody important,” is a frustration commonly expressed by these same busy people who formerly found purpose in their work. But where is the fulfillment they received from their career now? It’s gone missing. But it is recoverable.

If you’ve retired recently, think back about your life at work. You were needed, valued, respected and a contributor. You exchanged feedback and advice, praise and criticism. You were part of something larger than you. Now think about what provides that feeling of purpose in retirement. The place to look is within.

Finding Meaning and Purpose

Here are a few suggestions to finding new meaning and purpose:

  • Study and learn something new. Be curious and interested. Observe and absorb.
  • Look at your retirement years as an opportunity for a new start.
  • Keep moving forward toward new goals.

What’s the difference between pleasure and fulfillment? While some may see them as the same, I see distinct differences.

Pleasure comes from an external source and delivers short-term satisfaction. It feels good at the time, but quickly fades, leaving you in need of another pleasure. Think of a warm cappuccino or a thrilling sail out on the bay or sex. Pleasure is hitting that perfect corner shot on the tennis court, going to a movie, or docking the boat flawlessly. Pleasure is writing an article and seeing it published. Pleasure is fun.

On the other hand, fulfillment comes from deep within, and the satisfaction it provides is long-term. You get the warmth and fuzziness of pleasure and feel it deep down in your soul. Fulfillment lasts long after the event is over. Fulfillment is teaching, and then watching, your grandson make his first perfect corner shot on the tennis court. Fulfillment is watching your student dock the boat impeccably. Fulfillment is seeing the article you wrote having a positive effect on others. Fulfillment is rewarding.

Fulfillment and purpose are harder to come by than pleasures. Finding fulfillment is a process more than an event, and is often elusive. That’s why many people are willing to “wait and see what comes along” and have fun in the meantime.

Why Purpose in Retirement Matters

Must you have a life of fulfillment in retirement? I frequently hear, “I’ve had purpose my whole life. I’ve worked hard and earned my time to do nothing. Hasn’t that been enough purpose in my life?” In a word, no.

Part of what kept you going throughout your career was your purpose. That could have been love for your work or a need for the money. Without your career identity, you need to find a new purpose. Why? Because without purpose, you’ll end up watching over too many hours of television and that’s just not fulfilling enough. The happiest retirees I see are the ones living a life of true purpose.

How do you find purpose and fulfillment in retirement? By mentoring, teaching or volunteering. Retirees who do these things are achieving their own personal dreams, discovering new passions and sharing their legacy through writing, speaking and storytelling. They are frequently part-time employed with work that benefits the social good. They are continually working to improve their physical and mental fitness and making an effort to avoid being isolated.

The Least Happy Retirees

The least happy retirees I’ve seen are ones who are afraid to leave their profession, aren’t willing to take a risk at something new and have become a permanent babysitter to their grandkids — fulfilling their children’s schedules, but leaving little time for their own passion.

Here are actions you can take to help find fulfillment in your retirement life:

  • Mentor, teach, or volunteer to share your knowledge and wisdom
  • Engage with others and stay social
  • Be open to taking risks
  • Practice being enthusiastic, grateful, and satisfied
  • Notice the good things every day
  • Laugh more, especially at yourself
  • Like more, love more, and give more
  • Search for, find and pursue your true passion; if you’re unsure of what your true passion is, get your free Passion Quiz here.

Seeking and finding fulfillment and purpose in your retirement years is an admirable goal and you will live a happier life for it. Just be sure you’re not mistaking pleasure for fulfillment.

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