Making a Healthy Transition to Retirement

by Karen D. Sullivan, PhD, ABPP


Retirement ranks 10th on the list of life’s most stressful events. Keep in mind positive life events can also be highly stressful (getting married is No. 7 on the list). Like most things in life, everyone is a bit different in how they approach the milestone of retirement.

Social scientists think the adjustment to retirement is largely dependent upon how meaningful a person’s occupation was to them. If a person labels their job as highly stressful and just a means to a paycheck, retirement is more likely to be a welcomed transition. For these folks, retirement can herald the beginning of a new era of low-stress and more time to pursue healthful hobbies and interests. For the person who derived a lot of personal fulfillment from their job and genuinely enjoyed the hustle and bustle of a demanding occupation, the unstructured days of retirement can feel lacking in meaning and lonely without the camaraderie of co-workers and the pursuit of daily goals.

Context matters, inside and out.
Research tells us that two additional factors influence one’s adjustment to retirement: the context in which a person retired and personality.
If you were asked to retire due to an “age policy” or poor health, chances are you will find retirement more depressing than exciting. If the decision to retire was yours, you will likely adapt much better than if you felt you were “forced out” due to circumstances beyond your control.
People with certain personality characteristics, most notably those who are high in competitiveness and assertiveness, have more difficulty adjusting to retirement, because work offers a constructive outlet for these traits.

Why the let down for some?
Retirement as a life event carries a lot of expectations of relief and joy, but for some, retirement brings unexpected, unpleasant changes in how we feel. Work provides us with a structure to our day. It offers us a built-in social life. We have a title and job duties. It makes us feel important.

Without these supports, some can find themselves with the retirement blues or an adjustment disorder. An adjustment disorder is a psychological condition when someone experiences a group of symptoms, including feelings of sadness or hopelessness, along with physical symptoms, like unexplained headaches and fatigue. An adjustment disorder is not as serious as clinical depression, but it can reduce quality of life and make you feel less interested in the hobbies you were looking forward to pursuing.

Talk about how you feel.
Even though we have a lot of stereotypes about how people should act and feel once they retire, there are no rules for how you have to feel. Research suggests most people have mixed feelings about this life transition: a combination of positive and negative emotions. Talking about how you really feel with trusted friends can make you feel less alone and normalize any feelings of stress you may have. Chances are they have similar feelings as you.

Consider talking to a professional.
If you think you may have the post-retirement blues, especially if they last more than a few months, consider talking with a mental health professional. For many, expressing any conflicting feelings you may have about retiring with a trained person who cares can be very beneficial. Counseling can offer the benefits of time and space to figure out how you want to make the most out of this next phase of life.


Dr. Sullivan, a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology, can be reached at 910-420-8041 or by visiting