Dreaming of retirement usually includes visions of gardening, golfing, napping, or something like Happy Gilmore’s happy place.
But according to Harvard experts, you shouldn’t take it too easy in retirement. For ideal well-being, seniors need to stay engaged – with their own interests, as well as with other people.
It’s extremely tough for newly retired men in particular. Creating a routine after leaving the nine-to-five grind can be a long, soul-searching experience.
“During that phase of going from a lot of structure to almost no structure, men can exhibit the same signs as someone who is overworked,” explains Dr. Randall Paulsen, a psychiatrist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Retirement can also lead to relationship changes with a spouse or partner.
“If you have a partner at home who is not used to you being around all the time, there has to be a recalibration,” says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
And of course, everyone will need time to adjust to the dynamics, too.
“Older couples have to, in a sense, learn how to enjoy having lunch together,” Dr. Paulsen says.
So what should you do with all that free time in retirement?
It’s a tricky balance – either doing too much, or too little, can lead to the same symptoms like anxiety, depression, appetite loss, memory impairment, and insomnia.
You can volunteer once a week. Take a class. Launch a new career. You can do anything as long as it’s something with meaning and keeps you coming back for more. Even better if you can choose a social activity; research suggests social engagement is as important to your health as exercise and a healthy diet.
The key is finding that balance of activities that draw you in and stretch you out.
“We grow and keep our brains alive by being engaged with things that challenge us,” Dr. Miller says.
Whatever you choose, don’t make it too easy — or too hard. A moderate amount of stress engages our brain circuits and focuses our attention; an overload can be debilitating.
“The sweet spot is the stuff that’s just outside your reach, where you have to work and concentrate,” Dr. Miller says. “Those are the kinds of challenges that help us feel alive and engaged.”
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