How To Manage Your Expectations And End Up Happy In Retirement

Before you retire, the last few months at work is a time to prepare. Those who want to retire may dream about the possibilities; those who dread retirement may be having nightmares. Expectations about what retirement living will be like cannot be avoided. But at the same time it’s impossible to have an accurate picture without having done it, and so these expectations can range from wildly positive to wildly negative. Inaccurate expectations, in either direction, can interfere with how you feel about your retirement when you finally get there.

For those who lean positive, retirement seems like a vast improvement in lifestyle. Many believe they will be rejuvenated and motivated to take on new challenges. But the reality is their motivation to do a lot of things will decline after retirement. Whether it’s from age, lack of direction, or a lack of a need to accomplish anything right away, or ever, less is likely to get done, not more.

They may also miscalculate how much they’ll enjoy their leisure. For retirees, leisure is their life; for those still working, it’s a diversion from work. The reality is people who relocated to a warmer climate with more recreational facilities are not as happy as they expected to be, and those who loved traveling while still working did not enjoy it as much in retirement. When the stresses of their jobs is gone, there’s nothing to escape from, and no need for diversions. As one of our respondents put it, “I believe that when people say they can’t wait to retire, what they really want is a long vacation.”

Negative expectations pose a different set of issues. Those who want to delay retirement don’t necessarily love their jobs more, but they view retirement as boring, socially isolating, and without enough interesting things to do. Their perspective typically derives from their current lifestyles: we found that these people tend to have fewer non-work interests, have less satisfying marriages, and are less socially connected. In other words, they don’t have things to go to if they leave their jobs.

One side effect of negative expectations is demotivation. A negative attitude can inhibit us from taking actions because we don’t feel there’s much to be gained. We’re also less prone to embrace the retirement lifestyle, and so we’re further distracted from developing a plan for moving forward. The point is if you go in with a negative attitude you’ll probably end up with exactly the type of retirement you’re expecting.

Still, being too positive is more problematic. It can be harder to overcome disappointment due to over-optimism than to live with the pleasant surprise that it’s not as bad as you thought it would be. Such disappointments can also interfere with establishing plans for their future because a satisfying retirement becomes harder to visualize.

So it’s important to stay grounded — not negative but not too positive. With realistic expectations, you won’t be blindsided and you’ll end up less disappointed. Your expectations won’t get in the way of focusing your attention on developing a new lifestyle.

As a related point, you also have to have the right mind-set, a belief that you can make your retirement a great experience. The truth is retiring well takes effort, and realistic expectations and a positive attitude on their own imply no action. Retirement is all about starting over and building a new life, and so you need to be open to its possibilities, and stay motivated to try new things and seek out new experiences.

There are mental exercises you can perform before retiring to understand the effort that’s required. Accept the possibility that retirement may not be as fulfilling as a career that offers constant social contact, challenging tasks, and an established routine. Then imagine life without work — think about each day, day after day, with very little structure, direction, or challenge. From that mental image you should notice pretty large blocks of time with little to do. It could be as rewarding as a career if you fill these blocks with something meaningful.

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