I don’t think “retirement” is the final goal in life most of us seem to think it is. In fact, it is just the beginning for those who make the right choices. I spent the majority of my youth and middle age almost completely unconscious of what makes this life truly important. I was confused and thought that money, power, fame, and recognition were the source of happiness – right up to the point when I was diagnosed with cancer in 1988 and forced to confront my deepest held beliefs. Once I recovered from the chemotherapy I told myself that if I lived to retirement age I would not waste this additional “free time” playing golf or watching television. I wanted to eventually die knowing I had done everything I could to achieve some purpose that was truly meaningful – rather than living out my days dwelling upon past glories and materialistic accomplishments.
It doesn’t matter what you believe in – whether it is reincarnation, or “this is it” with regard to future lifetimes, we only have one shot – this time around – to achieve our unique human potential. Some people might believe their potential is spiritual, or unlimited, while others believe it is tangible and limited to earthly achievements. Either way, having a desire to achieve our true potential during retirement requires a proactive and developmental approach to one’s aging process. This might seem like a lot of hard work in the form of study, meditation, optimal aging practices, critical self-reflection, exercise, nutrition, openness to alternative opinions and views, focusing our efforts, helping others less fortunate, and remaining positive even when life inevitably deals you a hard blow or two. However, the gift of doing this type of work is that we, as human beings, are hardwired to be constantly growing, developing our capabilities, improving ourselves and the communities we live in. It just doesn’t feel right unless we are moving towards something important in life.
Sadly, some people don’t think about their potential at all. In their minds, they are who they are. They prefer to think, feel, and act like they always have. They strive to keep their behavior similar to the majority of other older adults. They have heard and internalized all the wrong messages for their entire lives: “Don’t rock the boat,” “fit in,” “stay well within your own comfort zone,” “money will buy you happiness,” and so on. They might have different beliefs and political preferences, but they will always fall into some pre-existing group of people who believe they – and they alone – have the right answers to life. This is the mass consciousness of older adults prevailing in our country today – and this blueprint for misfortune is reflected in our existing ideas about retirement.
Doing nothing in retirement but what you see others doing is like following a pack of lemmings off a cliff. It might feel good in the moment, but you can’t pretend to fly forever.
What is this Choice?
Aging, and especially retirement, requires you to make what is probably the most important choice of your life. This choice can affect your health and happiness for decades to come, as well as the health and happiness of those who mean the most to you. This choice involves either going along with the herd, and doing what most other people are doing – or you can choose a more informed and proactive path in retirement that leads to the discovery of your own unique purpose in life, and the motivation to achieve it.
In the past, this really wasn’t much of a choice. First of all, not many people lived long enough for this choice to matter on a large scale and, secondly, there was not much written or discussed about people who chose a path different from the norms in our society. Instead, they were considered outliers, rebels, even crazy – so it is highly probable that not many people would choose to act differently, even if they knew what to do.
However, there is a rapidly expanding consciousness today – one that is unprecedented in recorded history – and this consciousness keeps growing and evolving at an escalating rate. It arises from the interactions of the collective – which are increasing at an exponential rate due to communications technology – and result in a deepening self-understanding, independence from the chains of our conditioned behavioral, and an illumination of the roles, myths, and misconceptions of the mass consciousness and social construction of aging in this country.
Traditional Theories of Retirement
My observation from teaching older adults for many years, is that most of them have adopted a behavioral pattern resembling what scientists refer to as “Dis-engagement” and/or “Activity” theory. We have all noticed older, retired adults who seem to simply dis-engage from a more active/working involvement in the world. The skills they acquired while in the workforce are quickly outmoded, there is little incentive to learn new ones, and the lack of meaningful engagement with the outside world leads to cognitive decline and a general sense of befuddlement when confronted with change of any kind. If the person chooses stability over continuing growth, they usually become increasingly defensive, rigid in their thinking, and tend to remain exclusively within a social group that shares and reinforces their closely-held perspectives.
The explanation behind this dis-engagement theory of older adult behavior is that retirement is a time to relax and “enjoy” life for as long as you can. The problem with this perspective is that people over the age of 65 are the fastest growing segment of our population (how many people can we afford to have just sitting around), and dis-engagement from meaningful interaction with others actually escalates the process of cognitive and physical decline in an older adult. In addition, this definition ignores aging research which indicates that selflessly helping others gives humans a greater and more lasting happiness and QOL than a more self-centered, relaxing, and pleasure-seeking approach.
Activity Theory, on the other hand, emphasizes remaining active and/or busy in retirement – but gives us little direction as to how we might improve the quality of these activities. It also leaves us feeling bereft and without purpose when we can no longer be as active as we once were. Activity theory promotes physical exercise, which is probably the most important thing we can do as we get older, but it generally has little affect on our self-awareness or overall quality of life (QOL). Activity theory can actually become destructive if we try to remain active by doing the things we have always done, in the manner we have always done them. Examples might be running, skiing, long hikes, working on the house or in the yard, lifting heavy weights – I think you get the picture. This is formally called “Continuity Theory,” and can be readily observed in many aging baby-boomers who don’t realize we must continually be adapting our behavior to the realities of the aging process.
All three of these existing theories of aging – based on the actual observation of older adults – are flawed. In the end it is not what you have done in your life, but what you have become and are becoming that is important. This requires at least a partial shift from an external orientation towards life, love, and happiness – to an internal focus that is both developmental in nature, and can lead to new meaning and purpose in life. To be truly joyful we must always be working towards something that is important to us: improving our health, helping others, creating something, raising our grandchildren, caring for a spouse or sick relative, or many other things that will vary by individual. This “Progress Principle” is a naturally occurring instinct in humans, and working towards some meaningful goal, or seeing the progress your actions are generating, is a significant factor in improving one’s QOL – but rarely considered in our society’s existing theories of retirement.
Taken altogether, there is a need – at least for some of us – to find our own unique pathway to retirement. This decision could prove to be the most difficult, but rewarding thing we ever do. It is difficult because so very few other older adults are doing it. Instead, they choose the path of least resistance and most social approval; never finding their unique purpose or potential in life. The rewards for taking a more proactive, and developmental stance towards getting older are too numerous to list, but let it be said that it is only possible to become all that you can be if you take this approach. I, for one, do not want to lie be my deathbed and regret not having achieved my true potential in life.
To help you determine what is society’s path for aging, versus your own unique pathway, the following is a comparative list of key words describing both approaches:
Society’s Path for Aging
– Externally driven
– Heavily influenced by others
– Stay within “Comfort Zone” – no stress
– Conditioned thoughts and behavior
– Separation, Isolation, Seclusion
– Little tolerance for differences
– Rigid, Unchanging
– Little or no growth/development
– Order through stability
Finding Your Own Unique Pathway
– Proactive, internally driven – Autonomous, self-directed – “Living on the Edge” – good stress – Free choice, Authenticity, Alignment – Unique – Other-centered – Connection, Love of Self and Others – Accepting, Inclusiveness, Recognition – Flexible, Adaptive, Continuously Changing – Escalating growth and development – Order through fluctuation and change
Once an individual makes this choice to proactively pursue their unique potential in retirement, there is always the danger of falling back into the same old habits and behaviors of the mass consciousness. Very few people around you will be supportive at first, or even understand what you are attempting to do. So, my advice is to make sure you start this process with a supportive group of other people having similar goals and growth aspirations – while minimizing interaction with others who seem negative or derisive.
If you are thinking about retiring, in the process of retiring, or already retired, this will probably be the most important choice you make from this point forward. Please give it the thought it deserves.