Retirement Update @ 8 months

It has been eight months since I have retired and it is again time for me to reflect on my retirement and speculate as to how I might build a more fruitful retirement henceforth. Since retiring I have kept a near daily on-line journal, My Retirement Diary, which is my primary source of data for this essay.

My Decision to Retire Prematurely

Recent changes in the healthcare system prevented me from adhering to my professional standards while providing care to my patients. The resulting conflict between my professional obligations and the bureaucratic mandates created innumerable ethically problematic patient encounters and this engendered an unacceptable level of stress. 

I am glad I retired when I did.

I have written several essays exploring the events and my thought process during the days prior to and shortly after my retirement, including:  

Activities Since Retiring

Since retiring, I have focused on partaking in my longstanding hobbies including woodworking, walking, cycling, theater, writing, recreational reading and some domestic travel. To date, I have kept myself entertained with rare moments of boredom. (I am not happy when I have nothing to do.)

Social Activities During Retirement

After I decided to retire I began reading everything I could find about retirement. I learned that men tend to lose their social circles upon retiring whereas women tend to maintain their social circles in retirement. Some have concluded that this difference occurs because female friendships are frequently based on conversations whereas male bonding occurs as a result of joint endeavors. (Yes, I know these are broad generalizations.) The upshot is that many retired men become socially isolated and dependent on their spouse for their social activities.

From the Harvard longevity study, The Good Life and The Science of Well-Being I came to understand that one’s long-term happiness, mental health, and physical health depend on having multiple, meaningful relationships and durable happiness arises from shared experiences, not the acquisition of things. Like most men, my instinct is to believe “I can handle this alone, by myself,” I decided I needed to suppress my instincts and instead trust the data; if I wanted to be happy I must work to expand my social circle. 

To build my social circle, I created a monthly brunch for retired elderly men, I joined my city’s weekly senior walk, and I host a one-hour informal, Friday 6PM gathering for neighbors. I am now trying to create a mid-day, mid-week, retirees’ pickleball league and a pizza/candlepin bowling league. It remains too early in the process to know if any of these activities will be durable or beneficial.

The Harvard longevity study found that relationships were most “meaningful”’ when they were based on affection, empathy, curiosity, and “the willingness to engage with your spouse regarding challenging problems and emotions rather than avoid them.” I have personally come to appreciate the benefits of having “meaningful” conversations with family, relatives, friends, or neighbors. As it is uncomfortable for me to initiate these types of conversations, I again must resist my instinct (avoidance) and push for this type of interactions.

After reading about the train experiment, which found that people are happier if they talk with strangers vs ignoring strangers, I began making an effort to engage in conversation with strangers. The data was accurate, life becomes more interesting!

My Political Angst During Retirement

While I am a self-described “political geek,” I find that today’s political climate engenders too much personal angst. In the past I was able to quiet these political demons by writing political essays, as I found that putting my thoughts into an essay would silence the political demons in my mind.

Lately I have tried to minimize my interaction with the political realm. Unfortunately, I still get drawn toward these events as my core believes that the future of America’s democracy hangs in the balance and history has shown what fate awaits those who are members of the “out” group when the authoritarians takeover. I fear for my family and thus it is hard for me to completely turn-off the political chatter.

Creative Activities vs. Culturally Consumptive Activities

I have learned that many retirees entertain themselves by traveling to exotic destinations, visiting museums and other entertainment venues. I regard these as a “culturally consumptive” activities. 

While traveling holds little appeal to me (the ratio of enjoyment time/travel time is too small or the travel time is too long), the “culturally consumptive” activity which does increase my happiness quotient is an emotional resonant theatrical performance. To maximize my happiness, my wife and I have season subscriptions to two local theater companies (American Repertory Theater and Central Square Theater). Episodically I (alone) will try to augment my happiness score by attending a student theater productions at MIT or Harvard, both are within walking distance of my home.

Movies and TV rarely keep me entertained. Thus it is not uncommon for me to end up wandering from movie to movie in a cinema while I wait for my wife’s movie to end.

As a result of rereading my journal I discovered that I am happier when I partake in a “creative activity” instead of a “culturally consumptive activity.” I am at my happiest when I am building or creating something, whether is it writing an essay, building furniture, or replacing a faucet. From my journal I have also learned that while I appreciate receiving accolades regarding my creations, I consider the accolades bonus points, as I now know that I accrue the vast majority of my happiness points during the process of “creating” itself.

What Constitutes “A Good Day” During Retirement

After reviewing My Retirement Diary I have come to understand that a “good day” would include some walking or cycling, learning something new, some form of social interaction, and creating something.

Concerns About My Health During Retirement

My father had mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and 40% of people with MCI will develop dementia. Thus I am concerned. 

This longitudinal, prospective, cohort study Lifestyle Enrichment in Later Life and Its Association With Dementia Risk found that social activities had no impact on the rate of progression from MCI to dementia but the following activities reduced the risk of developing dementia:

Activity     . . . Dementia risk reduction

Adult literacy activities:    . . . . . 11%

 e.g writing letters, journaling, using a computer, taking classes

Active mental activities:       . . . . . 9%

e.g. playing games, cards, chess, crosswords, or puzzles

Creative artistic activities:   . . . . . 7%

e.g. craftwork, woodwork, metalwork, painting or drawing

Passive mental activities:      . . . . . 7%

e.g. reading books, newspapers, magazines, watching TV, listening to music or radio

Fortunately I already partake in several of these cognitively beneficial activities and I will continue to do so.

Every senior knows that their health will deteriorate, eventually. While I remain healthy today I know I will need to have my leaky aortic valve replaced in the not too distant future.

Other than engaging in healthy behaviors, there is little I can do which will delay the day when illness will overtake me. 

Strategies to Improve My Retirement

Retirement has four phases: 

    1. Vacation, duration ~1 year
    2. Boredom and disillusionment, “as we lose our routine, identity, work relations, a sense of purpose, and a sense of power and … we may have to confront: divorce, depression, anxiety, and decline” (paraphrased)
    3. Investigation, “How can I make my life meaningful again? How can I contribute?”
    4. Enlightenment, when we “reinvent and rewire” and ask “What’s the purpose here? What’s my mission? How can I squeeze all the juice out of retirement?””

Currently I am in Phase 1 but I think I am also in Phase 3. Hopefully, by paying attention to the structure of my retirement, I will be able to skip Phase 2 and jump into Phase 4. 

Expanding Social Circles

I must expand my social circle and attend a significant number of entertaining and learning opportunities because these types of activities will keep me happier and healthier.

I now know that neither will happen spontaneously. I must deliberatively and repeatedly invest a large amount of time to ensure that these opportunities arise.

Overcoming Inertia

Since retiring I have discovered that my biggest enemy is “inertia.” I find it hard to begin a new activity, regardless as to whether it is woodworking, cycling, blogging, or scheduling my next event, etc. I must force myself to overcome this albatross for once I begin the activity a new momentum will engulf me and I will remained engrossed for hours.

The most effective means to overcome this inertia is the creation of a “diversionary activity.” When I have too much unstructured time (recall, I am not happy unless I am doing something) and there is an unfinished woodworking project in the basement, I might decide that I should  spend a few minutes cleaning up my basement shop. While attending to the diversionary activity, before I realize it, I have resumed woodworking.

Exploring Mind Expansion

Human history has demonstrated that there is another way of understanding the world beyond the rational, mathematic, and scientific explanations, which have been the bedrock of my existence. I would like to better understand this alternate world view, which has so far been shielded from my ken.

After reading, Michael Pollan’s (a high school classmate) book, “How To Change Your Mind,” I decided I should try hallucinogenics as a method to open this closed door. While I tried a micro-dose of psilocybin once, it had no effect. I’ll return to this at sometime in the future.

I am also attempting to “expand my mind” using mindful meditation. I watched Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Masterclass “Mindfulness and Meditation.” Although I have been doing the meditations daily for a few weeks now, I am not certain I have noticed a benefit. Maybe it’s too soon or maybe there’s more I need to understand about meditation before it will become a productive activity. As Jon says that successful meditation requires practice, like playing an instrument, for now, I will continue to do the meditations daily.

Conclusion: It Is Now My Time

At this point in time I have concluded that my decision to retire prematurely was the correct decision and that my retirement is progressing appropriately. There are some areas of my retirement that need improvement, including a broadening of my social circle and more intellectual activities. I do not yet know how to deal with the political angst issue.

When I retired I adopted the mantra “It is now my time,” by which I meant that during retirement my first priority will be to my wife and me. My first priority is no longer my children or my patients. Of course I will continue to act as a backstop for my kids should the need arise, but they are doing very well on their own. 

So my mantra remains the unchanged: It is now my time.

After I retired, my son asked me to build him a bluebird house. He said “it will only take you 90 minutes and you have plenty of time.” I told him that I wasn’t interested in building a birdhouse and told him about my reordered priorities and new mantra. He subsequently and repeatedly made the same request until a few months before he and his wife were to give birth to our first grandchild, when he ask me: “Will you build the birdhouse if the baby requests it?” 

I told him I would be delighted to have a conversation with the baby about building the baby a birdhouse, but it will be a private conversation.

Little does he know how much I am looking forward to having my first meaningful conversation with my first grandchild.

Hayward Zwerling

12 August 2023

Grandchild #1
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