Paradoxically, if one views his or her vocation as a calling, this allure may feel more like a curse than a blessing. There are many who dread the day when they are handed a gold watch, place their personal belongings in a cardboard box, and walk to the parking lot for the last time.
For those whose work is integral to their identity and well-being, the challenge is to retire from something to something.
Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, the brilliant research minds behind “Self-Determination Theory,” propose that we have three basic needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness; which, when met, “yield enhanced self-motivation and mental health and when thwarted lead to diminished motivation and well-being.” (p. 68)1 If these researchers are right, our well-being in retirement may very well be determined by how well we address these fundamental needs.
Could it be that healthy retirees perceive each day as an opportunity to …
… grow new competencies? They seek ways to satisfy their itch to master new skills and succeed at new challenges. Like the bright-eyed, ever-in-motion toddler, they are constantly learning and growing.
… self-direct? The added free time of retirement is an autonomy boon ready to be filled with what one wants to do for its own sake. For those who retire well, the added margin is populated with self-expression motivated from within.
… build strong relational bonds? In the journal Science, James House and his colleagues suggest that “… social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health—rivaling the effect of well-established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity, and physical actively.” (p. 541)2 Regardless of age, caring for others and being cared for are central to one’s mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health.
… pursue purpose? In addition to competence, autonomy, and relatedness, Daniel Pink, in his book, Drive, suggests that purpose is an important dimension of an engaged and motivated life.3 Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor and internationally renowned psychiatrist, observes: “… being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets about himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.” (pp. 110-111)4
So by all means, regardless of your age, when your paid vocation no longer meets your need for competence, autonomy, relatedness, and purpose, retire; but retire from something to something. Your well-being may very well depend on it.
GENE HARKER is the author of LEADERSHIP INSIGHT: THE NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF GRIT, SUCCESS, AND WELL-BEING (geneharker.com).
1 Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
2 House, J.S., Landis, K.R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social relationships and health. Science. 241(4865), 540-545.
3 Pink, D.H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. New York: the Penguin Group.
4 Fankl, V.E. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon