What's Tony Thinking

Why So Many People Are Unhappy in Retirement


I was talking recently with a good friend who owns his own, successful, business. He had been reading my new book, Useful Wisdom, and the chapter entitled “Purpose.”

He said that his primary purpose, these days, is mentoring the half dozen younger people working in his office, one or more of whom will take over the business in a couple more years. “They are a great team,” he said. “They really love each other.” I said I thought that was a terrific purpose for our time of life and I admired what he was doing.

Then he said, “But, I’m not sure that’s enough.” He added, “You know what I miss? I miss the struggle.” I did know what he meant. The struggle to make the business viable and strong, to overcome obstacles and challenges. What an insightful, and honest, appraisal.

It reminded me of a recent piece by Arthur C. Brooks, who has been thinking a lot about such issues. The title of this blog is taken from a piece by Brooks, who talks about a script or narrative that many of us internalized at an early age. It served us well for much of life, but may not be as helpful as we grow older. Here’s Brooks,

“There is a script to life . . . It’s in many of the most beloved fictional stories, and—from the outside, at least—it looks like the lives of successful people. It is often called the hero’s journey, or the monomyth.

“The 19th-century anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor was the first to identify the hero’s journey in literature. As he showed, many great adventure stories throughout history follow the basic formula. This is true from the Bible’s story of King David to Star Wars today. You can think of it as having three parts. The first is the call to adventure, where the hero-to-be is stimulated to act in some bold way, usually to meet a daunting task—say, fighting Goliath, or the Empire. The second is the ordeal, in which the hero is brutally tested and has to beat long odds—such as vanquishing a giant in battle or blowing up the Death Star. The third is victory, where the hero wins against these odds and returns home, triumphant.”

So far, so good. But as Brooks notes this isn’t the whole story. There’s a fourth stage. Call it post-victory, or to use my friend’s word, “post-struggle.” There is the return “home” after the struggle, the victory. The problem with this narrative, writes Brooks, is that it doesn’t account for what happens after the victory, after the struggle to establish yourself, to overcome the world’s dragons.

“It’s a nice narrative, especially if you’ve worked hard and done pretty well in life. The problem is the real-life ending, after the triumphant return. People have no script for that part. There’s no Star Wars sequel where Luke Skywalker hangs around the house all day, yelling because someone touched the thermostat and telling his grandkids about blowing up the Death Star for the thousandth time while they roll their eyes.

“Of course, some people enjoy retirement, but since I have been writing about happiness later in life, many people who were successful earlier in life have reached out to me to say that retirement has been brutal: They feel unhappy, aimless, and bored. In search of—well, they’re not quite sure what—some have made bad choices, tanking their marriages (leading to what social scientists call “gray divorce,” which doubled in the 25 years between 1990 and 2015) or making stupid business decisions they don’t think they would have made when they were still employed. One person told me, ‘Since I quit working, I feel like a stranger to myself.'”

You have to cross the threshold back to non-heroic or a very different kind of heroic life. Brooks again,

“Defining it in terms of three phases, as I did above, makes the mistake of leaving out one last, critical phase. The literary scholar Joseph Campbell, author of the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, notes that many great myths involve a subtle twist after the triumph in battle. He calls it ‘The Crossing of the Return Threshold.’ ‘The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world,’ Campbell writes. ‘The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life.’ In other words, the end of the true hero’s journey is coming home and finding a battle to be waged not with an external enemy, but with one’s own demons. Win that final battle—the hardest one of all—and true victory is yours.”

It strikes me that these pandemic days, bring a new twist, a doubling-down on retirement. There’s the first one, about which Brooks writes. Now it is compounded by the fairly literal “retirement” of staying home, sheltering in place, keeping your distance. If you’ve managed first retirement, the crossing of the return threshold, now you’re hit with pandemic retirement.

This post is pushing my self-imposed length limits, so we will wrap-up for now, leaving it with a, “To be continued . . .”

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