Living a Purposeful Life After Retirement
What, exactly, is the point of retirement? With all our focus on the mechanics of saving and investing, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Is financial independence really your goal? Or is your ultimate purpose something that lies beyond the dollars, something that wealth enables but doesn’t deliver on its own?
In other words, what are you retiring to?
If you’re reluctant to tackle the bigger question, ask yourself this: Can you really find meaning and happiness in retirement without a larger purpose?
It’s great to finally enjoy unlimited free time for sleeping, having fun, going where and when you want. But, for many of us, happiness is about more than just staying busy in retirement.
Speaking for myself, there needs to be an element of creativity or service. Otherwise there are nagging questions of self-worth. It’s hard for me to envision a happy retirement without any higher purpose….
And yet, after decades of career productivity, most of us do want to ease off the gas pedal in retirement. A balanced life becomes more important. One observer writes that the key to retirement well-being is to maintain a balanced “life portfolio” where you focus on four key areas: health, people, pursuits, and places.
So, what is the point of retirement? This question has come to the center for me lately. I’ve been expanding my interests and my retirement has entered a more traditional stage. I’ve also been talking to readers about how they’ve found meaning in retirement. Here’s what I’ve learned so far….
Purpose and Meaning
ClearerThinking.org is a web site with interactive tools and mini-courses for changing habits, making better decisions, and achieving goals. In their Lifetime Aspirations tool, they explore the essence of “meaning” and “purpose”:
At its simplest, meaning can be defined as being connected to something larger than the self [Seligman, 2002]. This can take on spiritual qualities, but can also be felt by participating on a sports team, belonging to a family or club, or becoming involved with an important cause.
William Damon at Stanford says that purpose is “A stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.”
So, while meaning provides a sense of belonging, comprehension, and significance, purpose can in turn provide meaning.
And both qualities are associated with well-being, life satisfaction, and other positive measures. [Steger, 2009; Kashdan et al, 2009]
Themes for Living a Purposeful Life After Retirement
In the past year, I’ve started talking to retired family, friends, and blog readers about what has given them purpose at this stage of life. A number of clear themes have emerged — ten activities that successful and happy retirees pursue. If you are rudderless in retirement, you could do worse than to pick a couple of these and jump in. They’ve provided meaning for many.
There’s a lot of diversity here, and a lot of range within each item. Don’t spread yourself too thin either. A successful retirement is not about doing all of these things. You can easily replace the stress of a job with the stress of too-many volunteer activities. Rather, pick one or two items that strike a chord. Observe whether they bring a sense of purpose and well-being to your life….
Retirement is a golden opportunity to catch up on any fun you might have missed during your working years. It’s proof that all work and no play can make for a dull life. But the opposite is true too.
A retirement made up exclusively of recreation is likely to be shallow and meaningless. As Todd Tresidder relates, the “pro leisure circuit” might be entertaining for a few years, but most of us will want more.
Almost everyone has some interests that they were forced to put on the shelf during their working years, that are not primarily about producing income or achieving success. Retirement is a great opportunity to pursue your passion for collecting or creating, for example.
Often these pursuits will offer opportunities for connection and service too. Sometimes they can even produce a little retirement income.
Though owning, decorating, or remodeling a home is not a passion for me or my wife, for many, even the majority, it is. I see plenty of retirees using their free time in retirement to relocate and craft a new home for themselves, geared to this stage of life. It’s a source of great satisfaction for many.
At the extreme, I see some needlessly “upsizing” rather than “downsizing” in retirement. Others focus on a seemingly endless stream of remodeling projects. For most of us, a balanced retirement requires looking outside the home as well.
If there is one universal desire among retirees of all income levels and viewpoints, it’s to travel. While shoehorned into the typical work/vacation schedule, most of us never had time for more than a few weeks of travel annually.
In retirement, your travels can stretch into months, or years. You can do short-term rentals or purchase an RV and take the time to really get to know your country and world.
For some retirees, travel becomes the central focus, as they stay on the road for years at a time. It can be a magical lifestyle with immense rewards.
Another common thread among retirees is a desire to turn back the clock, or at least slow it down, by refocusing on health and fitness. It is so easy to let your health slide during the years of working and raising a family. While prioritizing making a living and caring for kids, it’s all too common to let your diet, weight, and strength deteriorate.
In retirement, you can take the time to learn about and improve your physical health and sense of well being. For some of us, this becomes a lifelong reeducation project. Better health in turn enhances all your other retirement activities.
Related: Staying Healthy and Mobile in Retirement and Staying Strong in Retirement
The time and space of retirement allows you to ask, “Who am I, and what really interests me?” It’s the perfect opportunity for learning and self-improvement in whatever dimension appeals to you.
Some retirees return to formal schooling, many more pursue informal education through reading, online classes, or educational travel programs. The joy of learning, becoming better at what interests you, can be a lifelong source of satisfaction.
And there are no tests or grades! Mastering a subject provides its own rewards, and can lead to external connections as well as personal growth.
Retirement is not necessarily a time to stop working. It is a time to stop working at tasks you don’t like, or for money alone. Some retirees launch full-fledged second careers, ideally in a less-than-full-time occupation.
Many of us use this opportunity to indulge our inner entrepreneur. Retirement is a great opportunity to launch a small business, because you have free time to invest, and no urgent need to produce income. One caveat: this is not an invitation to risk your nest egg on a startup scheme or expensive franchise. Leave the big, risky bets to others.
Related: Should You Start a Business After Retiring?
Many of us feel a desire to give back to the world in gratitude for the opportunities we had and the success we’ve enjoyed. This urge can take many paths.
It might mean volunteering in your community, teaching to share your knowledge, or running a business or organization where the primary goal is not profit. That last point is essential. There is nothing wrong with making money, even while doing good.
But when you are doing something for the love of it and for the benefit it brings to others, the flavor is different. The main benefits are personal, not financial.
As many of us enter retirement or early retirement, it is common to have aging parents who need more help with their lives. It is also not uncommon to hear of grandchildren, disabled family members, even pets perhaps, consuming much of a retiree’s day.
We all hope for long, healthy lives for our family. Few of us would probably choose a full-time caregiving position. Still, that work can be rich with meaning.
The stories of gratitude from those who care for others nearing the ends of their lives show us that, even if we inherit such a difficult task, we can still find happiness within it.
Finally, the clean slate of retirement is an opportunity for many to revisit, reaffirm, or redesign their belief system. During the working and child-raising years, the frenetic pace of life may have anaesthetized us to the big questions.
Now is an opportunity to dig deeper. For some that means immersing themselves in church work, reaping the benefits of a close spiritual community. For others it means launching down a fresh spiritual path, freed from earlier constraints.
We’re all closer to death at this stage. That is a persistent reminder to explore our relationship with something larger, before it’s too late. For many, this is the basis of all we do in retirement, and in life.
I’ve been retired just about exactly eight years now. The first six months after I stopped working, I didn’t have any agenda. I decompressed from my career, spent the summer traveling, and dabbled in writing some articles that would eventually become the basis for this blog.
Finding Purpose and Meaning in My Early Retirement
In late 2011, I kicked off the blog. Within a year it had become the overriding purpose of my retired life. Researching retirement-related financial topics, helping readers with their questions, and turning the blog into a viable business with a modest income consumed all the time I wanted to give.
Other than outdoor recreation, and supporting my wife in the last years of her career, the blog consumed the majority of my free time. As it became more successful, I found myself turning down opportunities for growth, just to keep my semi-retired lifestyle from becoming a full-time business.
Then, about two years ago, Chris got involved, gradually taking over more of the writing and daily operations. I’ve been stepping back, writing less, offloading duties to him.
With more free time, last year I dabbled in homesteading, locating, buying, and improving vacant land. But, after an enjoyable summer of working on the property, I pulled up short at breaking ground on a second home.
I couldn’t justify the cost against the amount of use it would get. And, I wasn’t ready to spend a year of my retirement managing a construction project. I’d rather go hiking or camping!
Creating Purpose Entering Traditional Retirement
So the past couple of years have been an experiment. I’ve been trying to re-retire, with no expectations or obligations. I’ve unsubscribed from emails, reduced my correspondence, and said “No” to commitments.
There has been relief at having a more relaxed schedule. But some anxiety too. Am I “wasting” my life?
The answer has been to reconsider my purpose, given the list above. Recently, my retirement has morphed again, with a focus on fitness and giving back:
I’m finally almost recovered from a debilitating ankle injury. (You’ll never take the pure joy of walking for granted again once you’ve lost it!)
I’ve doubled my level of exercise over the past year, getting in shape to tackle my outdoor bucket list. It’s meant less desk time and less creative output. But being outside is highly meaningful to me and more important right now.
I’ve also reached out to volunteer at several trail and land conservancy organizations in my region, hoping to give back to the causes that are most meaningful to me.
I’m finally at the point where I’ve accomplished most of my personal goals. I can shift my focus to leaving a legacy for others.
I believe that an overriding purpose or two will make your retirement happier and more meaningful. But the choice of that purpose is not static. It might change over time. Mine has.
How Our Readers Are Creating Purposeful Lives After Retirement
And for others? I’ve interviewed a half dozen readers on this topic already. It’s early to reach broad conclusions, but the threads have been interesting.
For starters, it seems clear that those who plan are happier with their life in retirement. So thinking about how you will spend your time once you are no longer working is a wise investment.
Common themes include travel, fitness, and being outside. Also church, friends, and family….
But it may not be enough to do the same old things in retirement. Developing a unique creative outlet has been important to many of us. And branching out to expand your personal network beyond transactional working relationships can be highly rewarding.
Finally, several readers suggest that the quest for purpose itself is important. That purpose and meaning are self-defined, and may not have a clear end point. Which, if you think about it, might be encouraging news….
And what about you? What is, or will be, your purpose in life when you no longer have to work for a paycheck?
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This article was originally published April 1, 2019 and was most recently updated October 23, 2021.
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[The founder of CanIRetireYet.com, Darrow Kirkpatrick relied on a modest lifestyle, high savings rate, and simple passive index investing to retire at age 50 from a career as a civil and software engineer. He has been quoted or published in The Wall Street Journal, MarketWatch, Kiplinger, The Huffington Post, Consumer Reports, and Money Magazine among others. His books include Retiring Sooner: How to Accelerate Your Financial Independence and Can I Retire Yet? How to Make the Biggest Financial Decision of the Rest of Your Life.]
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I had a list of goals when I retired, including building a model railroad in the basement (which meant getting a good dry basement that I could finish to my specifications) and the desire to take geology courses. The latter goal substantially influenced our choice of location, I wanted to move north (from Northern VA), near a state university (lower costs for residents) that has a geology/earth sciences program. Turns out geology programs are relatively rare. This semester I’m taking my second course (mineralogy – it’s been a challenge). Wife has had less success, she didn’t really have a plan for what to do. She’s tried to get involved with some social/charitable groups with mixed results. But she hasn’t found any real friends here, and I know that bothers her. The other goal we’ve had is travel, and now that the house has been refurbished, we’ve gone on a couple of trips including a “bucket list” trip to Egypt and Jordan. As long as our health is good, I’m hoping we’ll continue to do 2 trips each year, scheduled around my university classes.
Interesting details, and some common threads here. Thanks David.
Caregiving can also mean watching grandchildren while their parents are at work. I can’t think of a better gift (peace of mind as much as financial help) to your children and a wonderful way to enjoy the next generation while building a bond with them that they will remember long after you are gone.
Wonderful addition, thanks Judith!
My mother passed away recently, and it was very touching to understand the gratitude of the grandchildren of the time their grandmother spent with them . . . something that not all of their friends experienced.
But the choice of that purpose is not static. It might change over time.
I’m only semi-retired ans still in my 40’s, and for the almost 2 years I’ve been working half time my desires have already changed a bit. I can see myself always being focused on fitness and health, but I imagine some mixture of travel, giving back, and caregiving among others occupying the majority of my time at some point in my hopefully long future. To me life is very dynamic and I don’t see having one purpose but moving from thing to thing as my desires and the need arises.
Good examples, thanks Dave.
Vital subject matter for anyone in or contemplating retirement. Your ten points are right on for me. I retired at 56 and am nearly four years in. My wife retired at the same time and am glad she did; I wouldn’t have retired without her, my fear of boredom was high and still is. And I have tried to find purpose but it’s elusive and I haven’t found it, yet I’m not convinced I need to.
I still feel some anxiety if I don’t accomplish anything in a day but those accomplishments are now easier to reach, less consequential, and may only take a few hours out of my day. Now exercising, reading, tinkering with a hobby/ project, or socializing satisfy me.
One of the best parts about retirement is not having to be anywhere in the morning!
Mitch, that’s an honest assessment of a lot of my days too. Thanks for the thoughts!
Early retirement lays bare some of the evolutionary machinery of the human mind. Some quick examples. Biological organisms are goal directed by nature. In earlier hunter gatherer societies, those goals were crystal clear and immediate: find food, shelter, a mate, etc. You didn’t have a lot of time to think about hobbies. Fast forward to today’s modern environment which bears little resemblance to the evolutionary landscape in which our brains evolved, and the disconnects become apparent. We often feel anxiety, boredom, and other negative feelings when we do not have goals. Often we chalk this up to not having “meaning” in our lives, but I think it helps when we can realize that there is a basis in these feelings in how the brain is wired. If you think you can go through life without goals and feel happy, you are most likely mistaken. Now imagine an early retiree, who apparently has all the resources required to secure all the obvious goals in life (food, shelter, etc.). This is naturally going to create angst (on average, not everyone), and we often start down the path of securing goals to alleviate that angst.
Another example for men at least is status. It is a fact that women desire status in men which often equates directly with their ability to provide resources (e.g. see David Buss, 2016). When you quit your job, much of the status you had previously accrued disappears as your ability to generate resources changes dramatically. It would be interesting to see the divorce rate among early retirees. I know it played a large role in mine. Men are hard wired to accumulate status, because they know that this is what makes them attractive on the mating market. When that status drops, they will generally feel angst, whether they consciously understand where that angst emanates from or not. This phenomenon is well documented in Evolutionary Psychology. My whole point is that by better understanding Evolutionary Psychology and the hard wired tendencies in the brains of humans, you will be better able to predict, understand, and ultimately deal with the complex emotions that come from something as dramatic as early retirement.
Darrow, you clearly have some angst as shows up in your posts periodically, including the last one about the things you gave up for early retirement. I am going on a month long road trip in your direction shortly. Let me know if you’d like to chat more.
Thanks David. I’m sympathetic to those insights from Evolutionary Psychology from my reading too. But we shouldn’t oversimplify. For example, an intelligent partner can assign high status to an individual who is respected by others, financially independent, master of their own schedule, and able to lavish time and attention on their partner. It’s not necessary to accumulate ever-increasing resources for status once you have enough to be in the top 5 or 10 percent, already.
I try to be honest in my posts about the financial and emotional challenges of retirement. My life isn’t perfect, but Caroline and I seem to live a blissful existence compared to many humans I observe.
Thanks again. Sounds like we could have an interesting conversation. I may be in touch!
I was thrust into “retirement” last year at age 65 when my IT mainframe support position was eliminated from outsourcing. It’s been exactly 12 months since then, and after having marched to a clock and pager for 40 years, my transition into retirement has been challenging.
The first couple of months was a big breath fresh air, no more alarm clock, no more being rousted awake in middle of the night by an unsympathetic on-call pager… but now it’s been a fight between the ingrained “rhythm” developed from those 40 years of being, for lack of words, always “switched on”, and the desire to put all of that behind me. It’s been a challenge trying to undo a 4 decades old habit.
I’m discovering the finding a different purpose/mission, and reprogramming, or more accurately, de-programming oneself from their previous life, is essential in transitioning into an enjoyable retirement.
Just with any bad habit, it needs to be replaced by a good one or you’ll never be rid of it… anyone know of a good 12 step program?.. lol
Thank you Dan, much appreciated.
I am now 2 years retired at a more traditional age of 66. I have always been interested in “meaning”. I was a philosophy major in college and was ultimately a PhD candidate, but never wrote a thesis. Afterwards, I had a wonderful career in physical therapy for 40 years, but never completely abandoned reading the area of religion and philosophy.
I think what makes retirement so difficult for some people is that it is becoming a blank slate, even more so than if you retire earlier than the traditional age. Research seems to indicate that having no choice is undesirable, but also that having too many choices is just as bad. If you haven’t entered retirement considering what might be meaningful to you, you may be the proverbial ship sailing without a rudder.
I think the same problem occurs in finding life meaning in our times. Prior to the 20th century, many people were given meaning via religion: an ethical system and a purpose in life. Many recent thinkers say we create our own meaning. But if you no longer have the basis for this creation, the task can seem impossible. Viktor Frankl, in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”, made his case for this: from possibly the worst possible circumstance that anyone can imagine, he found a way to make his life have purpose, survive, and live on. So finding meaning is always possible, but it may be easy. I think it is always desirable.
Darrow, one of the great things about your article is that you find these amazing resources that I’ve never heard of. First, “Younger Next Year,” and now ClearerThinking! Thanks for getting me out of the rut of NYT, the Atlantic, and MIT Tech Review!
I made the decision to retire at age 59, and I’m now 11 months in. I’m loving life, but questions of meaning and purpose have started to bubble up, especially when I’m at social events and the first question is “What do you DO?”
Lastly for a very novel take on spiritual growth I might recommend Michael Pollan’s new book, “How to Change Your Mind,” which examines the impact psychedelic substances can have for people searching for meaning, or even coming to terms with things such as aging and serious illness. You might find it intriguing.
Judging from your experience and the varying opinions here and across the FIRE blogosphere, retirement seems like it can be as much a test as a reward. My highly capable wife left her profession exactly one year ago today. More accurately, she fled a poor manager. At 56, she’s enjoyed a refresh in that she’s lost 30 lbs, works out several times a week at a gym she loves, joined a couple of boards and indulged her passion for local history and architecture. She no longer cries regularly as in the old job. On the other hand, she entered retirement with no plan and she struggles with her self worth too much regarding being unexpectedly unemployed. She’s had a hard time finding new work but is about to start a part time job in a new field that she’s cautiously optimistic about and will provide a way to occupy her big, self-critical brain. In watching her for a year, retirement both tantalizes and scares me a little, and that’s no April Fool’s joke. Thanks for your perspectives above.
I would be interested in sharing my story. I was planning early retirement but spur of the moment left work right before I turned 50. I didn’t have a plan of what I would do and I’m so grateful that I didn’t. I didn’t realize the amount of time it would take my brain to “heal” from the constant stress of a full time corporate job.
I eventually put a cartoon picture on my vision board “aka my fridge” that is captioned “Throw things at the wall, see what sticks, if nothing sticks hang out in the pile”. And that’s exactly what I did. I tried out many new ideas and personas.
1 year 8 months into my retirement I have settled on spending lots of time doing humanitarian work and projects. I even did hurricane relief this year! If you know me you would not believe that I left my husband alone while I slept in tents and worked in shelters! I also spend a ridiculous, luxurious amount of time planning trips from my husband and myself. He is still working so we get 4 weeks to travel together while I am also free to do spontaneous trips with my girlfriends.
Thanks Roxanna, love the cartoon caption and your personal take on this issue.
This was a thought provoking post, with a very good framework that all should consider when contemplating post-retirement life.
To your question – what has provided meaning and purpose to my post retirement life? – After 5 years of retirement (at 49 years old) – I have found purpose and meaning through: spending quality time with my wife and family; caregiving for elderly family members; reconnecting with friends; making new friends; travel; learning new skills (in cooking, healthier lifestyles, travel, fishing, hiking, managing investments and finances); sparking my curiosity(in various ways); exercise and health, and volunteering in nonprofit organizations. We have traveled over 9 months of every year since we retired (primarily via an RV in the U.S. and Canada – but also outside of North America), and have had wonderful opportunities to be immersed in nature (in wilderness areas, state parks and national parks and monuments), experience different regions and cultures, extend our knowledge of history, try new foods, experience the arts and culture, etc. What has been helpful to me, is to think about my post-working life as a process, with different phases (not a fixed goal). Like you, I have learned not to take on too many fixed obligations at this stage (shorter term volunteering stints for example), as these may reduce our opportunities to experience nature, travel, and visiting friends and family. After many years with a time consuming and rewarding career, we are trying to stay open to change and life experiences and to stay curious….
Thanks for the perspective and details Ed. Sounds like you’ve tried much of the list over the course of your retirement so far, and found it rewarding. Agreed about avoiding fixed/longer-term obligations.
I love this article. As someone looking to retire in his early 50s (target date: December, 2021), I really appreciate the insight into the struggles one faces if they do not plan properly. Having a few hobbies, my first grandchild on the way and a nonprofit to run should head off most concerns, but this article has certainly generated a lot of thought to define what my ideal retirement looks like….thank you!
Darrow, it’s great to see you back at the keyboard, and I LOVE this post. I retired 10 months ago and I’ve found a real purpose in my blog as well. I love the concept of mixing things up, and have been inspired by your post to start a sabbatical this summer while we’re traveling to the Pacific Northwest in our RV. I’d love to talk to you in more detail if you’re receptive to including me in your interviews for your project. I’m intrigued. Thank you for inspiring those of us who are following your footsteps.
I appreciate your perspectives. Three years ago I retired. Your book and blog were helpful resources for me. A great deal of my time pre and post retirement focused on finances including budget, financial models and how to live without a paycheck. Overtime my perspective has evolved from detailed financial management to more time pursuing bucket list items and life goals. In reading other FI blogs, others seems to follow this evolutionary path.
Currently I find myself struggling to find a bigger purpose than checking activities off a bucket list. Finding purpose is hard work involving a lot of sole searching. I think it will take time to discover it and patience as it may involve a couple false starts. At this point, I feel like I want to create something…I am still working on this part. I am hopeful though!
PS…You mentioned your sprained ankle…I would like to thank you for posting (a few years back) a link to a physical therapy guide for healing these injuries. I trail run and severely sprained my ankle a couple times. I used your recommendation and wow, what a difference it made in recovering without any lasting issues. Thank you!
Hi, this is my first post after reading this site for years. In my opinion the terms “Purpose and Meaning” get banded about a lot. When I retired 3 years ago, at first I felt inadequate as I didn’t have this epiphany saying this is your purpose in retirement and that all your worries and concerns fade away to a nirvana of enlightenment. Did I not get it? Am I somehow less than human?
I came to realise this… There won’t be a stroke of lightning, a parting of the clouds showing you the way. You don’t need “Purpose and Meaning” to live a fulfilling life. Do what is important for you. Whether this is family, your health, travel, helping others. The content of the article is spot on, but be careful about how you think about “Purpose and Meaning”.
Our plan definitely isn’t for everyone, but the wife and I are having a sailboat built and we plan to take 2-10 years to slowly travel the world. We are not so naive that we think we will be able to or even desire to sail all the way around the world. But the years of preparing for this journey have taught me that sailing into a new island or port after a long journey that you’ve never visited is exhilarating, and keeps your mind sharp and your body fit. There’s no lack of purpose for sure! Crazy part is it will actually be less expensive than living on land, although that’s not the reason we are doing it.
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