Negative Feelings About Retirement? How to Deal with Those Unexpected Emotions

Retirement. For some, it’s something they’ve been looking forward to for half of their working lives; for others, it’s a necessary evil that they learn to live with. However you felt about retirement before taking the plunge (or being pushed off the edge), you might find that your feelings change as you start to settle into your new lifestyle – you might even find that some unexpected emotions begin to crop up. This is totally normal; after all, retirement is a huge life change! Know that you are not alone in dealing with these issues, and know also that you can find ways to deal with them, and get on the road to a more fulfilling retirement. 

A New Youolder caucasian man with a green sign behind him that says "what's next"

When you were younger, you may have had an idealized view of retirement, or thought of it in a more 20th century way: it’s just something that you do when you hit a certain age. The truth is, retirement is complicated. There are multiple reasons why we do it, both positive and negative – and researchers have found that it’s usually a combination of both. Dissatisfaction with work could be mixed with a desire to spend more time with loved ones, or doing the things that you truly enjoy. You could be forced into retirement because of health issues, or a restructuring of your company. 

Whatever brought you to this point in your life, though, you have to recognize that, in some ways, you may feel like your identity is shifting when you’re no longer working at a long-held job. Sometimes changing our perspective and feeling like a new version of ourselves is liberating and positive, but sometimes, as for many retirees, it can lead to a confusing tangle of emotions. Some people may even experience a delayed reaction: Elizabeth Mokyr Horner, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, found that some retirees experience a “sugar rush” of well-being and life satisfaction directly after retirement, followed by a sharp decline in happiness afterwards. 

What this all means is that you have to look after your psychological well-being just as you would your financial well-being in retirement. You can start by examining the unexpected negative feelings you may be experiencing, and trying to find some creative ways to combat them. 

black and white picture of an older caucasian woman with her face in her hands
Some people will experience a sense of loss as to who they are once they leave their job.

A Sense of Loss

  • What you might be experiencing: As we touched on above, people often link their job with who they are, so you may experience a sense of loss – or even grieving – when you retire. In fact, according to Deana Arnett, senior planning consultant at Rosenthal Wealth Management Group, people “get their identities wrapped up in what they do for a living, and once that’s gone, if there’s not something else there to fill the space, that’s when the depression and dissatisfaction kicks in.” Retirement can also mean the loss of the daily interactions and challenges that were part of your life everyday for many years, and losing those can add to the sadness you feel. 
  • What you can do: The key here is finding and accepting support. This could come from family and friends, a church or religious organization, a therapist, or a support group. Connecting with new people or places can go a long way, especially when combined with reconnecting in meaningful ways to the people and places you already love. You can also try getting creative and writing or journaling about your feelings of loss, or making a memory book. 


  • What you may be experiencing: This one may not have been on your radar, but many retirees actually end up feeling guilty in many ways after they retire. “It seems to be a mix of guilt over good fortune (being able to retire comfortably), shirking duties (no longer having to work or be productive), spending money that may be needed for the future (not adequately appreciating money available), and having access to benefits (like Social Security and pensions),” according to Steven M. Albert, PhD, a professor in the department of behavioral and community health sciences and chairman for research and science at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. “It may also involve a kind of survivor guilt – making it to this point intact and with resources, unlike others less fortunate.” You might also feel guilty if you aren’t somehow “making the most of” every second your work-free day.

    illustration of older couple holding shopping bags
    It’s okay to splurge a little without feeling guilty, you just have to budget wisely!
  • What you can do: First of all, give yourself a little grace. You don’t have to spend every second engaged in some sort of meaningful pursuit, or chasing adventure. It’s ok to spend some days binge watching and not bungee jumping! 

Next, if you feel guilty every time you splurge on takeout with your spouse or friends, be proactive. Talk to a financial planner and do an honest, thorough assessment of your finances. Figure out where you can cut or move funds around. Invest wisely. And, if you’re feeling unproductive and uncomfortable about money, there’s no rule saying you can’t look for a part-time job to fill some of your time. 

Finally, if your good fortune suddenly seems like a burden, get out into the community and volunteer! We’ll look at this option a little more closely below. 


  • What you might be experiencing: Are you wondering “did I do the right thing?” Buyer’s remorse can be real when you retire, especially if you ended up retiring before you thought you would. Or maybe your remorse is more about what could have been: maybe you feel like you missed an opportunity for career advancement somewhere along the way, or that you didn’t set your financial goals high enough. 
  • What you can do: If it’s buyer’s remorse you’re suffering from, you might simply need a change of perspective. Yes, you gave up working – but did you get something back in return? For example, maybe you have an elderly parent who will no longer be around in 5 years, or grandchildren that are at an age when hanging out with grandma is still the best thing ever. That certainly won’t last! There are pros and cons to everything, and retirement is no different – so try to focus on the pros.


On the other hand, if you’re spending your time going over and over in your head what might have been, or what you might have done wrong, then it’s time to move forward. If you feel like you have unfinished business with someone from your working life, try to work it out with them. If you wished you had somehow “done more,” try signing up for classes and furthering your education, or again, look into part-time work. Life doesn’t end at retirement! 


  • What you might be experiencing: Many of us have an idealized view of retirement, but you may end up having your bubble burst. You may simply feel dissatisfied with your retirement: According to Candy Spitz, LCSW, a board-certified life coach at Unlimited Paths based in Church Falls, Virginia, “Sometimes people think, ‘This isn’t what I thought it would be’.” 
  • What you can do: First of all, don’t think about retiring from something, think about retiring to something – a new life, with a new perspective, and new opportunities. If you take away a big part of your life – your career – you need to fill that space. As mentioned above, further education or part-time jobs are great ways to embark on something new. 

older caucasian adults volunteering picking up trash with picks.Another excellent option is to volunteer, which was also one of our ideas for combatting feelings of guilt at your lack of productivity, or at your good fortune. A recent study in the Journal of Aging and Health led by Eva Kahana, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University, found that people living in retirement communities reported higher levels of life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms if they were involved in volunteering. 

Not only can volunteering boost your mental state, but it can also increase your physical health. Researchers have found that older adults who volunteer 200 hours over the course of a year are less likely to develop hypertension than non-volunteers. According to psychologist Sheldon Cohen, PhD, “Volunteering may increase feelings of purpose and meaning in life, and commuting to volunteer sites and activities may also increase physical activity, therefore decreasing hypertension risk. All of these have the potential of improving cardiovascular health.” So if you’re feeling bored, cooped up, and lacking in purpose, volunteerism might be just what you need to get your heart pumping.

The bottom line is, whatever you’re feeling now that you’re retired, it’s normal, and it’s ok. Your life has changed drastically, and you’ll need an adjustment period. Take time to grieve if you need to, find a good support network, and look for what makes life meaningful to you, whether that’s giving back to your community, finding a second chance career, or returning to old passions and hobbies. Your fulfillment will look different from someone else’s, and no one can tell you how to be happy. If you want to binge watch, go ahead! You’ve earned some downtime. And if you want to go bungee jumping, more power to you – just be safe out there! 

About The Author:
Cassandra Love

With over a decade of helpful content experience Cassandra has dedicated her career to making sure people have access to relevant, easy to understand, and valuable information. After realizing a huge knowledge gap Cassandra spent years researching and working with health insurance companies to create accessible guides and articles to walk anyone through every aspect of the insurance process.

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