The Secret to Leisure in Retirement: Work!

Knowing what is Work and what is Leisure in retirement can be complicated.  While we’re working full-time, a life of leisure can sound dreamy and a little dull. Once we’ve retired, a life without defined work responsibilities can feel aimless and flat. Living a life of leisure without any work is just about the worst thing we can do for our physical and mental health.  Here's how to create the right balance of work and leisure after retirement, so you can live a long, healthy, and vibrant life.

The 6 Categories of Leisure

Let's start by defining “leisure.” Dr. Richard P. Johnson, founder of Retirement Options, defines leisure as satisfying activities “that can rejuvenate your body, stimulate your mind, or enrich your spirit.”  These fall into six categories: 1) social connection; 2) “people watching,” 3) creative expression, 4) intellectual stimulation, 5) physical exercise, and 6) solitary relaxation. What we do for leisure is unique to us:  one person’s day at the ballpark is another one’s snore-fest. That’s what makes it fun!  We get to do whatever the heck we want with whoever we want to do it with!

This expression of our self through leisure isn’t optional; it’s a fundamental human need.  We know this.  We know how we get worn down when we keep pushing through stress of work, caregiving responsibilities, or a demanding relationship. We know how a weekend away can rejuvenate us. And we’ve experienced getting sick when we don’t take the time we need for ourselves.

The Stress of Doing too Little 

If leisure is so beneficial, doesn’t it make sense that “living the life of leisure” in our Golden Years would prolong life?  Actually, no.  A 2016 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that workers who delayed retirement lived longer than early retirees, even when controlling for the workers’ health when they retired.  On the surface, then, working longer appears to help us live longer.

We need work because, paradoxically, stress also comes from living a life that is understimulating. We’ve all heard stories of colleagues who are living vibrant, engaged lives, only to retire to . . . nothing. No plan beyond taking that Hawaii vacation and cleaning out the closets. They aren’t getting the stimulation that true leisure provides.

On the other hand, some retirees fill their time with activities which aren’t deeply satisfying to them. They may be busy socializing, taking classes, and planning their next trip, but all this activity isn’t adding up to anything. Leisure is an expression of our true self; without this life feels flat.

But here’s the thing: retirement itself may not be to blame. The problem lies in the imbalance between work and leisure.  When we do work we love, it likely draws on one or more leisure categories. It makes perfect sense to keep engaged in social, creative, intellectually stimulating activities after we retire.

How to Make Work and Play Work for You

First, recognize your “unofficial” work as real work. Caretaking of parents, grandchildren, or your spouse is real work. Running your household is real work. Make to do lists. Schedule work into your day. Cross your to do items off. Your contribution to your friends and family is real and significant.

Second, sort out those aspects of your paid work that have been fun for you, that tap into your creativity, social connection, and intellectual stimulation.  Then look for leisure activities that draw on what you know you love. Add new activities that will stretch your boundaries. Make a game of identifying fun things that combine more than one leisure activity.

Third, put your gifts and interests to work. You may find this in an encore career, like I did. You may want to continue working part time.  Or you may find volunteer work that you love.  Find a way to make your unique contribution to the world. You’ll feel good and studies show that volunteers live longer.

Then, go take a walk in the hills, catch a ball game, or whip up a dinner party with friends.

Celebrate your BIG UnRetired Life!

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