Sunday, January 2, 2011

Thoughts for a New Year

The year 2011 marks the beginning of the second decade of my retirement. A good time for some reflection and prognostication. ** [Warning: This may get a little boring, so feel free to go do something more interesting, like sorting your socks.]**

My wife and I retired in 2000 at age 55. Such a young retirement age may seem almost hopelessly unattainable for most people in the current economic climate, but conditions were much better then. We were fortunate to be able to finance our retirement through a combination of prudent savings, conservative investing, and 30+ years of contributions to a state teachers' pension plan. Oh, and we didn't have kids.

Looking back at these last ten years, I have to say that on the whole they have been really, really, good. In analyzing the reasons I feel so positive about this past decade, I've of course relied on my psychological training and my ability as a university professor to concoct an answer to any question whatsoever, regardless of whether I know what I'm talking about.

Retirement is an exercise in existential angst management second only to being a teenager (well, and for men maybe a Mid-Life Crisis). These times confront you with fearsome challenges to define your values and  goals, and to set a life course that will have a major impact on your emotional, social, and psychological well-being. The problem in both cases is that there is really no road map or set of guidelines to follow, and this lack of clarity can be quite scary.

Sure, you can make plans to do X or Y, as people often do when they retire: "I'm going to start a new business;" "I want to play every Robert Trent Jones course in the world;" I want to sail the South Pacific; "I'm going to buy an RV and travel;" "I'm going to learn Sanskrit;" "I'll clean out my garage." But having a plan doesn't really address the angst issue, even though it makes you feel like you've got everything under control. The truth is that over the past ten years, and indeed over the previous 55 years, the best experiences I've had were (a) unplanned and (b) unexpected.

Retirement has forced me to confront issues of what and who I am -- issues that I thought I had resolved during my career. In fact I now realize just how much my career was a defining structure that provided answers to these questions and gave my life meaning and purpose. When retirement removed that structure I had to confront the questions anew.  And since we moved away from the academic environment to a completely different cultural setting, I didn't even have the old social situations and institutions to ease the existential burden.

So, what I have learned, and why has it made me happy? Here's a partial list:
  • Existential questions probably don't have final answers.  When you accept this, continuing to ask them and to explore temporary answers can actually be very satisfying and even fun.
  • Learning new things and learning more about old things is a vital source of  my happiness, and learning can occur at any time and in any place if you let it.
  • If you look closely at something, you will often find an amazing world in the details.
  • Worrying is truly a waste of time that could be better spent doing something that enhances happiness.
  • The qualities of people and things that we think make us happy or unhappy are not inherent in them.  Happiness isn't caused by people or things, but rather by our reactions to them.
  • Compassion is the best antidote for anger.  And of course, you can't be happy and angry at the same time.
 See you in another ten years.


    PaddleDoc said...

    I share your conclusions about retirement, now in my 6th year. I mentioned my age upon beginning retirement and received a flock of unhappy responses from a group of guys who say they'll be working forever. This is not a happy topic for many people these days. These were OR nurses and they were talking about having to put in their own stents and by passes soon!

    R. Sherman said...

    Thanks, Paddledoc. There are also people who don't really want to retire -- i.e., give up their professional activities. And nobody should retire if they don't want to or aren't ready financially or psychologically. But I fear some are using the "head-in-the-sand" approach to the existential questions I mentioned -- see my blog of 8/20/09, .