Purpose. Meaning. Identity. If I was asked what the three most important words are in retirement, those would be my choices.
Without purpose and meaning, we have a significantly greater chance of dying early. That's shocking, I know. But here's the proof.
The link between psychological health and physical health is inextricable. We need fulfillment to avoid the despondency of aimlessness.
That's why what we do with our identity after we leave full-time work is so important. We can't just leave it to chance, or think of it as set in stone, because too often purpose and meaning are wrapped up in identity. Lose your identity and the vital reasons for being alive can follow.
Teresa Amabile, a soon-to-retire Harvard Business School professor, is studying how the ending of work affects one's self-esteem.
Happily, the people she has studied (120 professionals) are, for the most part, contentedly retired. In fact, many are deliriously content with the freedom of being able to spend their time the way they want. Leaving the stresses and demands of work was like dropping a yoke.
Those successful retirees, says Amabile, have gone through two processes: life restructuring and identity bridging.
Life restructuring, as it implies, is figuring out what your new life looks like. Says Amabile: "... many of the people that we interviewed had gotten to that point where they had a life structure that was a new one for them that they felt was really working, that they were enjoying. And there’s no longer that sense of urgency: I’ve got to get my life figured out.
"We asked them at the end of the interview, what’s the best thing about being retired so far for you? A surprisingly large number of people say not waking up to an alarm clock. And many others will say something on the order of the freedom, the flexibility I have to structure my day as I want."
Identity bridging is the psychological part.
At the end of all her interview, Amabile asks, "Would you be more likely to say that your work is what you do or your work is who you are?"
Most of the professionals she interviewed admitted to feeling strongly identified with their work.
The ones who succeeded in detaching from work and restructuring their lives in retirement managed to, as Amabile puts it, "maintain or somehow enhance some important aspect of [themselves] that existed pre-retirement."
Sometimes it's an avocation that can be amplified. Sometimes it's a relationship that can become more important to one's identity. Fatherhood, for example. Or grandmotherhood.
Amabile also talks about "activating a dormant identity" by resurrecting something we identified with in the past so we can slide it further up the identity ladder.
One of the men she talked to in her research loved motorcycles as a young man but abandoned his passion during the decades of building a family and a corporate career. When work was over, he got back on a bike.
You can listen to Amabile talk about her research in this 26-minute Harvard Business Review podcast.
Near the end of the interview, the interviewer asks whether she believes the corporate world fails its employees by expecting them to work for three or four decades only to retire and wonder who they are.
"Absolutely," she replies. "So much of our mind space is occupied by our work, that we let other pieces of us atrophy."
The lessons? Know that the risk is real and perhaps bigger than we assume. Don't leave your identity to chance. Plan ahead. Start building bridges early.
And what if you've arrived in retirement without a bridge?
Look for purpose and meaning the way you would look for a cure if you were ill. Meaning is medicine.
Here are three blog posts I wrote that might help:
Here's the transcript of the full HBR interview with Teresa Amabile.