Counting Snowflakes: The Emotional Side of Retirement

Journal of Financial Planning: December 2013


Eileen Gallo, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist who works with individuals and families dealing with issues related to money. Along with her husband, Jon Gallo, she is the co-author of two books on children and money.

Most articles on retirement planning focus on economics and finance. How much do you need to put away and how do you invest your retirement savings? This column looks at some of the psychological and emotional issues involved in making the decision to retire and the process of reorganizing your life after you have retired. For some people, these are harder issues than saving enough to retire.

Until recently, psychologists and sociologists studying adult development have focused almost entirely on the pre-retirement years. Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in the history of the most comprehensive longitudinal study ever undertaken, the Harvard Grant Study. This study began in 1938 in an attempt to understand the factors that promoted optimum health and potential. For more than 70 years, Harvard researchers followed the lives of 268 Harvard men and their families. (Harvard did not begin to admit women until 1945.) In Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, George Vaillant, the director of the study, observed “There was a time when I thought that after the college men reached 65 and retired, there was nothing more to do but watch them die.” Yet today, the men of the Grant Study are in their 90s and the study is ongoing, in the words of Vaillant, “to teach, to surprise, and to give.”

Three Phases of Retirement

Today, adult development theory suggests that retirement—whether or not at age 65—is best thought of as a dynamic process consisting of three distinct phases.

The first is the pre-retirement phase when thoughts and feelings about retirement begin entering the person’s mind. Next comes the retirement phase itself. In “On Retirement: A Conversation with Daniel Levinson” from the March 1991 issue of Family Business Review, Levinson, a Yale psychologist widely viewed as a leading authority on adult development, describes the retirement phase as involving a fair amount of disorientation and a strong sense of loss and ambiguity about potential gains. The third phase is the post-retirement phase, when the person has formed a new life under different social and psychological conditions.

In their book, Generation to Generation, John Davis and co-authors point out that many seniors fear “becoming less relevant,” if they retire. The four people whose stories form this month’s column each took the lead in reorganizing their relevance. They made the decision about when to retire and did it in a mindful, thoughtful way. We are going to explore how they accomplished this.

Harry: Retired Lawyer

Harry was a partner in a major Los Angeles law firm when he decided to retire at age 66. His decision was the result of a number of factors. Harry’s specialty was real estate litigation and his decision to retire coincided with the puncturing of a Southern California real estate bubble. Two of his adult children and their families had moved out of state, and his wife was encouraging him to retire so they could travel.

Harry’s reaction to these factors was to take a three-day ski trip to Park City, Utah, where he spent his time alone on the slopes considering the pros and cons of retirement. “It actually snowed while I was there, and the snowflakes gave me great peace of mind,” he said. Once he reflected on the fact that he had saved enough to be able to retire, Harry had no second thoughts. “I had no regrets once I realized that I was relieved from the requirement to make money.”

For Harry, the post-retirement phase has been highly positive. “There’s no end of interesting things to do,” says Harry, “if you are interested in things.” He has served on the board of directors of a local nonprofit for the last 10 years and travels with his wife nearly half the time.

Mary: Retired Teacher

Mary had been a full-time teacher at a local private school for a number of years. When she reached age 62, she began to teach part-time and saw how much she enjoyed her free days. After three years, the school abolished the part-time teaching position, leaving Mary with the choice of going back to work full-time or retiring. Mary elected to retire six years ago. For her, it was a “natural decision.”

In discussing the emotional aspects of retirement with her, Mary offered a singular observation that highlights the various ways in which there can be a successful adaptation to retirement: “The best thing is not being nervous about not being busy. Other people fill up their days with classes and meetings. I’m OK with not being busy all the time. I have more time to take better care of myself and my home. I have more time to celebrate holidays and birthdays. I have time to do things more leisurely and more conveniently.” Mary’s approach to a meaningful retirement is both valid and at odds with Harry’s concept that one can be retired and busy at the same time in light of the “no end of interesting things to do.”

Sam: Retired Architect

Unlike the others in this column, Sam’s decision to retire was motivated by health reasons. A successful architect, Sam was suffering from spinal problems and had had two back surgeries when he decided that the time had come to sell his business. Interestingly, Sam’s health improved after he retired and within a year, he was contemplating opening an office again. He asked himself, “Do I really want to jump right back into all that?” After thinking about the options, he decided he enjoyed being retired. Today, Sam is in his 70s and is very socially active. He is a member of the local community council, a docent at the local art museum, and a university extension student. He views retirement as a blessing; he can do what he wants and be with the people he wants to be with.

Shelly: Retired Real Estate Agent

Shelly spent 30 years as a real estate agent in Los Angeles before deciding she simply wanted to spend more time with her family, particularly her grandchildren. Like Mary, she started working part-time during the pre-retirement phase and spending a great deal of time with her grandchildren. Shelly realized, however, that as her grandchildren approached adolescence, they would want to spend more time with peers pursuing their own interests. Like Sam, she began taking classes through a university extension. A major effort today is the “pooch program” at the local hospital, where specially trained dogs visit with patients. Shelly and her dog have undergone extensive training for the program.

If we were to distill the collective experience and wisdom of successful retirees, one common theme stands out: The importance of taking the lead in reorganizing one’s post-retirement relevance. Proactive steps will ultimately pay off in the long run. Perhaps it’s just taking some time off to count the snowflakes, like Harry, and reflect on the past. That time alone brought him important perspective to make his decision on retirement. And he made the right one.

As the famous Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 

General Financial Planning Principles
Retirement Savings and Income Planning