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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?

Telescope Peak

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, as 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]

Retirement Themes

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, replacing the stress of a job with the stress of too-many volunteer activities. Rather, pick one or two items that strike a chord, and discover if they bring a sense of purpose and well-being to your life….

Recreation — 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.

Hobbies — 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.

Homesteading — 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. Though, at the extreme, I see some needlessly “upsizing” rather than “downsizing” in retirement, and others focused on a seemingly endless stream of remodeling projects. For most of us, a balanced retirement requires looking outside the home as well.

Travel — 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.

Fitness — 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.

Learning — 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.

Encore Career — 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.

Giving Back — 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.

Caregiving — 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. While we all hope for long, healthy lives for our family, and would probably not choose a full-time caregiving position, that work can still 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.

Spiritual Growth — 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. That we are all closer to death at this stage 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.

My Experience

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.

In late 2011, I kicked off the blog and 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!

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, and can think about leaving a legacy for others.

What Readers Say

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.

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?

If you have thoughts, opinions, or stories, please leave a comment below….

(And, if you’re open to a more in-depth conversation on this topic, let me know, and leave a working email address in your user profile. I might reach out to you eventually for a related project. Thanks!)

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