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My Retirement Shock

Mike Drak

WHEN I FOUND myself unexpectedly packaged off by the bank, I was initially very happy. I was planning to leave anyway because the stress was getting to me. When the bank gave me a severance check at age 59, I felt like I’d won the lottery.

Life was pretty good for a while, but then I was hit by a bad case of retirement shock. I lost my mojo, and had a constant feeling of being incredibly lost and vulnerable. My heart was no longer in the hobbies and activities that used to bring me joy. Playing golf, swimming and riding my bike all began to feel like chores.

Take it from me, there’s nothing more depressing than sitting alone at home all day, watching cable news while being bored out of your mind. If you think about it, when we retire, we lose a lot.

All at once, we lose our sense of purpose, our identity, our community, our structure and our routines. It’s important to find ways to replace these elements, or we could end up losing our minds—or worse.

I spent a long time pondering why I ended up suffering, while people like my mother are able to retire happily with no negative side effects. She was comfortable in retirement and didn’t miss her earlier, busier years.

After a lot of research and self-reflection, I came to realize that I was quite different from my mother. My retirement shock was related to my inability to satisfy some fundamental needs that I was born with, needs that must be fulfilled for me to lead a happy, healthy life.

Unlike my mother, I’m a growth-oriented retiree. I have a strong need for autonomy, variety and identity. Being labeled as “retired” isn’t going to do it for me. In fact, it irritates me.

I have a strong need to do things that are interesting and challenging, those activities that give me satisfaction and a sense of achievement. For instance, I’ve always had a strong need to help others. When I get an opportunity to do that, it makes me feel really good inside.

These needs never go away—not even in retirement. While I no longer want to be a banker, I realize that there were certain aspects of my work that I enjoyed and which gave me a sense of accomplishment. I lost that when I was forced to retire. Until I could discover alternative ways to satisfy these needs, I was stuck in retirement hell, and suffered from depression and anxiety.

Some retirees don’t hunger for work and settle for what happens. Others—the growth-oriented ones—try to numb their feelings by, say, eating or drinking too much. This behavior might bring temporary relief, but also longer-term problems. If you’re not careful, retirement shock will age you and extinguish the fire inside. You don’t want to end up like some retirees, sleepwalking through the best years of your life.

I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from people about a family member or friend who wound up miserable after retiring. Many of them had enjoyed successful careers as doctors, teachers and senior executives.

They should’ve had a great retirement but didn’t—because they no longer had the strong sense of purpose they’d had when they were working. They no longer made a daily contribution that gave their life meaning and coherence. If you have a choice, why would you retire from doing something you love to do? That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

Unfortunately, few financial advisors talk about this vital aspect of retirement planning. This can result in some clients leading purposeless, unproductive lives.

I will leave you with a suggestion to help you avoid this fate. Retirement is one of the biggest life transitions you’ll ever experience. It’s an individual process, and what works for your retired friends might not work for you.

Know your strongest needs—the things that really turn you on—and then find activities that will satisfy them on a regular basis. That’s the key to a happy, fulfilling retirement. It’s as simple as that. Too bad it took me so long to figure it out.

Mike Drak is a 38-year veteran of the financial services industry. He’s the co-author of Longevity Lifestyle by Design, Retirement Heaven or Hell and Victory Lap Retirement. Mike works with his wife, an investment advisor, to help clients design a fulfilling retirement. For more on Mike, head to BoomingEncore.com. Check out his earlier articles.

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