being throughout their retirement years. A 2012 study in the
Journal of Happiness Studies by Elizabeth Mokyr Horner, PhD,
of the University of California, Berkeley, found that retirees
experience a “sugar rush” of well-being and life satisfaction
directly after retirement, followed by a sharp decline in
happiness a few years later. In her analysis of cross-sectional
data from 16 countries in Western Europe and the United
States, Horner found that most retirees experienced the rush-crash pattern regardless of the age they retired.
With people living longer, more research is needed on
what’s causing the crash and how psychologists can help people
prolong the sugar rush, she says. “People are going to spend
more time retired, even if we push the retirement age back. We
need to figure out a way to maximize people’s happiness.”
One answer might be to encourage altruism. In a June study
in the Journal of Aging and Health led by Eva Kahana, PhD, of
Case Western Reserve University, researchers found that people
living in retirement communities reported higher levels of
life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms if they were
involved with low to moderate levels of volunteer work than
those who weren’t.
A similar finding by Carnegie Mellon University
psychologist Sheldon Cohen, PhD, and graduate student
Rodlescia Sneed found that older adults who had volunteered
at least 200 hours within the prior year reported greater
increases in psychological well-being than those who did not.
The study, published in June in Psychology and Aging, was also
the first to explore a correlation between volunteerism and
blood pressure. The researchers found that older adults who
volunteered 200 hours over the year were less likely to develop
hypertension than non-volunteers.
That’s likely because being a committed volunteer expands
one’s social ties. “Volunteering may also increase feelings
of purpose and meaning in life,” notes Cohen, who says
commuting to volunteer sites and activities may also increase
physical activity, therefore decreasing hypertension risk. “All of
these have the potential of improving cardiovascular health.”
But volunteering may not be for everyone, emphasizes the
Sloan Center’s James. People who feel duty-bound to volunteer
during retirement do themselves more harm than good, she
found. In a 2012 study published in The Gerontologist, James
and colleagues looked at people’s engagement in later-life
roles, including volunteer work. They found that people who
reported low to medium engagement with volunteer work
had significantly poorer psychological well-being than those
who didn’t volunteer at all, while people who reported high
engagement had greater psychological well-being.
“When we are doing things that are ‘shoulds,’ or things that
we feel like we have to do and are obligatory, those are hard
on our well-being, no matter what age we are,” says James.
She is developing new measures of older adult engagement to
improve and encourage more research on the topic.
Feeling obligated in one’s post-retirement relationships can
have the same deleterious effect, says Nancy K. Schlossberg,
EdD, author of the 2009 book “Revitalizing Retirement.”
Schlossberg says many retirees feel pressured by family to plan
a retirement based on the extended family’s needs — such as
babysitting grandchildren — rather than their own.
Investing in your friendships well before you retire and
talking openly with family about your goals can help you avoid
an unsatisfying retirement, she says. She encourages retirees to
form support groups and to use their social and former work
connections to help each other create internships or volunteer
opportunities in areas they have always wanted to explore.
In the end, the years leading up to retirement should be
a time to increase your self-awareness, adds Delamontagne.
He was surprised to find he felt bored and aimless almost
immediately after he retired at 63 from a highly competitive
job as a software company executive. In talking to other retirees
for his book, he found that people with certain personality
characteristics — such as being competitive and assertive —
had more difficulty adjusting to retirement and were more
likely to make impulsive decisions with their time and money,
compared with more mild-mannered people coming from
“The very attributes that make people successful in their
work life often work against them in retirement,” he says.
While there’s no way to prepare for every high and low,
retirees will fare better if they familiarize themselves with the
emotional challenges well in advance, Delamontagne says.
“Once you know that these are the areas that cause problems,
you can craft solutions,” he says. n
Start your planning
“Life Plan for the Life Span,” a free brochure
from APA’s Committee on Aging, offers advice
for people in all career stages on how to
transition to retirement. The brochure also
includes advice on health care and financial
planning. Find it at www.apa.org/pi/aging/
• Cole, E., & Gergen, M. (Eds.). (2012). Retiring
but not shy: Feminist psychologists create their
post-careers. Chagrin Falls, Ohio: Taos Institute
• Wang, M. (Ed.) 2012. The Oxford handbook of
retirement. New York: Oxford University Press
• Scholossberg, N. 2003. Retire smart, retire
happy: Finding your true path in life.
Washington, DC: American Psychological