What Will You Retire To?

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The familiar image of retired men and women spending their years rocking back and forth on the front porch may be a satisfactory path and even a goal for some.  But if you’re like most of my clients, this won’t satisfy.  Why?  Because you’ve got to find purpose in your retirement.

Many people focus on what they won’t do during their retirement versus what they will do.  I call these the Retirement Won’ts.  There are many physical and psychological consequences that result from focusing on these.  Explore with me one of the psychological consequences.

In his famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist, author, and humanitarian, described his experience in Nazi concentration camps.  In his book, considered a central work of 20th Century literature, the author explained the different attitudes he witnessed among his fellow prisoners.  He observed how most internees were despondent and hopeless.  But despite unthinkable circumstances, some remained positive.  What was the difference between the two groups?  Purpose.

In Frankl’s book, the author quoted Friedrich Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a way to live can bear with almost any how.”  It may be unbelievable, but he observed that even in the midst of one of the most egregious examples of human cruelty, some prisoners, including Frankl himself, found meaning in their lives.

In his case, he was driven by a motivation to be reunited with his wife, to rewrite his manuscript which was confiscated by the Nazis, and to one day speak in front of an audience and share his concentration camp experience.  Thoughts like these motivated him to wake up every morning, even though there was little hope that he’d be liberated.

Have you ever experienced Sunday Neurosis?  Frankl is given credit for this term.  It is the feeling that you get after you’ve had a very busy week – full of deadlines at work, family responsibilities, and car trouble.

From Monday to Friday, you tell yourself, “I can’t wait for the weekend!”  You imagine yourself on Saturday and Sunday relaxed, away from the job, surrounded by friends, family or both.

But Sunday comes, the day you’ve been looking forward to all week, the feelings that arise aren’t what you expected.  Once the surge of the week subsides, you find yourself feeling empty, bored, and maybe even depressed.  Frankl described that his fellow prisoners experienced similar emotions when their camps were liberated.  For years and months, they would fantasize about life beyond the fences and armed guards.  Starvation would be replaced with lavish meals, beatings with relaxation, and hard labor with any number of pleasurable pursuits.  What happened, however, may surprise you.

Frankl recounts an experience that occurred shortly after the prisoners were freed.  A group of them took a walk outside of their barbed wired prisons for the first time since incarceration.  It was early spring, and they arrived at a meadow full of flowers.  The peaceful scene, so ordinary to them just a few years ago, was now strange and uncomfortable.

When they returned, he heard someone ask one of the just-liberated prisoners, “tell me, were you pleased today?”

“Truthfully, no!” he answered.

How could this be?  After all, they had dreamed about freedom since their first day in the concentration camp.  And now that they had finally attained it, they weren’t happy with the experience.  Frankl explained why.  “We had literally lost the ability to feel pleased and had to relearn it slowly.”

In your case, imagine working decades towards your retirement goal, only to feel let down once you’ve reached it.  It may seem implausible, but trust me – I’ve seen it countless times.  That’s why I encourage my clients to be as specific as possible when imagining what retirement will look like.

The question, “What are you going to retire to?” emphasizes the importance of determining one’s purpose during retirement.  When a client shares that he wants to play golf, I ask him what he plans to do in addition.  After all, one can’t play golf all day, seven days a week!  I believe that many of us look forward to not working so much that we neglect to think about what we will be doing when we’re not spending 40 or more hours a week earning a living.

Take time to ponder the question “What are you going to retire to?”  Have fun using your imagination, daydreaming, remembering hobbies left behind as your responsibilities added up over the years.      Then… retire to that!


Excerpt from Robert O. Graves book, Your Life Plan: A Guide to Financial Freedom.

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