Having a Happy Retirement

For many retirees, free time takes an emotional toll.

3 min read

When Saeed Amanullah retired seven years ago, he thought he had his life all figured out. Like many people hitting the retirement trail, he planned to do some consulting work and to go abroad to see the world.

But for Amanullah, 71, of Orange County, CA, things didn't quite work out the way he expected. His grand plans of turning his civil engineering career into consulting work turned out to be a letdown.

"I found it monotonous," he says, "and I just came to the conclusion that I had to get into something different in order to enjoy myself. But I was puzzled as to what to do because I had no other skills to speak of."

Amanullah's experience is not unique. To most people, retirement sounds like one big dream come true -- until they're actually faced with it.

"People have a certain degree of fantasy about retirement," says Denise Loftus, a retirement and employment specialist for the American Association of Retired Persons. After a few months, she says, they realize it's still important to have some purpose and meaning in life. "You just don't play golf and fish endlessly for the rest of your life."

"It's important that people face the reality beforehand," Loftus says. "They need to think and plan what they are going to do with all those hours that used to be taken up by work."

For many, retiring means continuing their careers -- just on a smaller scale. According to a 1997 survey by the Employee Benefits Research Institute, 72 percent of all workers, especially those from ages 34 to 44, plan to work after retirement. Others choose alternate paths such as volunteering, going back to school, and traveling.

But the main problem with retirement planning these days, says Loftus, is that for so many it means only financial planning. People must also take into account the personal adjustment that retirement will demand of them, and address practical concerns such as whether they will move or stay in the same city or house.

"If a person arrives at retirement having given no thought to it," says Rhoda FrindellGreen, Ph.D., a New York City psychological consultant specializing in career and business planning, "it could be quite a jolt and it could create anxiety, depression, or any number of reactions."

Men often have a harder time with retirement than women do, Loftus says. For many men, work has been the central focus of their lives. But many women have focused not only on work but also on family and household responsibilities -- concerns that continue past retirement. For these women, retirement is a less abrupt change in their lives.

So where can people turn for help? Loftus recommends the book Comfort Zones, by Elwood Chapman, as a place to start. Or find a friend who's gone through the same thing. "Sometimes a good way to plan," she says, "is to talk to someone who is retired and ask, 'What went well, what didn't, what do you suggest?'"

Seeing a career counselor like Green could also uncover new options. "I suggest that people visualize what would be an ideal day after retirement," Green says.

Planning ahead is important, but it's not enough by itself. Just ask Amanullah. He was in the middle of planning how to get out of his retirement rut when he took a trip to his homeland of India in 1993 -- and found his calling in the process.

India startled him. "It's such a vast, stark, different living style," he recalls. "I thought, these people are so poor, so impoverished, and we take everything for granted. And suddenly the thought occurred to me, hey, why don't I use my time trying to help these people?'"

He set up the Qamar Relief Organization, named in honor of his mother. He has built a school, an office building, and an orphanage. He's spent about half of his $100,000 retirement nest egg. And he now spends about six months in India and six at his home in Orange County. A staff of two oversees operations in India while he's away.

He's discovered that retirement can be the best years of your life. "I am so engrossed in what I'm doing," he says, "and it gives me so much pleasure."