In planning for retirement, you may have contributed to a 401(k), met with financial planners, and created a budget to make sure you could afford to leave the workforce. But building a retirement fund isn’t enough to prepare you for life after work. You need to consider the social and emotional aspects of retirement, too.
“There’s a tendency to think that the social side … is something that you can just do quickly once you’ve got the money part figured out,” says Wes Moss, managing partner and senior investment adviser for Capital Investment Advisors. “But it should be a lifelong pursuit to make sure that you’ve got all of the non-financial components in a good place when the time comes for you to stop working.”
Many people don’t give much thought to these things ahead of time. An AARP survey found that 57% of retirees never planned for their emotional health, and 46% never thought about how they would remain fulfilled, once they stopped working.
But one of the best ways to avoid social isolation, loss of identity, and lack of purpose is to plan ahead.
Rethink your 9-to-5: Your calendar may no longer be filled with meetings, deadlines, and conferences. But that doesn’t mean it should be blank. A lack of planned activities could lead to feelings of boredom, aimlessness, and isolation.
Your schedule will be less intense than it was when you were working full time, says Moss, author of What the Happiest Retirees Know. But having a few entries on your calendar each week will help you restart a routine and give you something to look forward to.
Consider joining a book club, signing up for fitness classes, volunteering, or scheduling regular lunches with friends. These activities can prevent boredom and give you a sense of purpose and well-being, says Moss.
Make connections: Retirement can take a toll on your social life. In a 2023 University of Michigan poll, 37% of retirees admitted to feeling that they lacked companionship.
“For a lot of people, even if our colleagues were virtual, we were talking with the same people all day, every day, [and] now we don’t have those people around anymore,” says Richard Eisenberg, who writes the View from Unretirement column for MarketWatch.
In the absence of birthday celebrations in the lunchroom or impromptu invitations to join co-workers for happy hour, Eisenberg says, “It’s up to you to make a point of seeing other people and getting out of the house.”
You can grow your social network by signing up for classes, joining recreational sports leagues, or attending events. Eisenberg has made new connections through volunteering. He says these interactions are important even if they don’t lead to deep, meaningful friendships.
“Typically, we think of friends as people that we spend a lot of time with, that we’ve known for years,” he says. “That isn’t necessarily what friendship has to be in retirement. It can be. But it can also be just some new people that you hang out with.”
Even if you’re not yet retired, Moss advises joining clubs, volunteering, and taking classes now.
“There is a quantity problem in retirement when it comes to our social networks,” he says. “The only way to solve for that is to constantly be working on growing and maintaining a larger social network.”
Reimagine your identity: Often, your career and identity go hand-in-hand. For professionals whose self-worth was tied to their careers, retirement can leave a void.
“So many of us are wrapped up in who we are because of what we do,” Eisenberg says. “It may take a while before you figure out what your new identity is. And that identity may be in some way related to who you were before you left your full-time job … but it may be a whole new identity.”
Find a sense of purpose: Contributing to the greater good can help you create a new identity in retirement, according to Eric Thurman, author of Thrive in Retirement: Simple Secrets for Being Happy for the Rest of Your Life.
You don’t necessarily get a sense of purpose from pursuing hobbies or social activities, he says. Joining a pickleball league, knitting, or re-reading the classics are great leisure pursuits but won’t provide a deep sense of meaning.
“You’ve got to find something that you love, that you can throw yourself into, that makes you want to get up in the morning,” Thurman says. “You need get involved in something bigger than you.”
Volunteering is a popular way to develop a sense of purpose during retirement. Your volunteer activities could mirror your professional skills. An entrepreneur might coach new business owners, accountants could help low-income seniors with tax preparation, and a nurse might volunteer with a blood bank. Or, you might want new challenges, like joining a board or traveling overseas to volunteer with an international aid organization.
The key to building social networks, creating a fulfilling routine, developing a sense of identity, and finding a sense of purpose comes down to intention and effort, Eisenberg says.
“There are a lot of opportunities,” he says. “But you have to make an effort to find them and make them happen.”