October 22, 2014 by Jean
Recently, I was asked how I’m feeling about being retired. It turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I’m not feeling the euphoria I expected, but I’m also not feeling the negative feelings (disillusionment, loss of identity) that some have described.
The best description of my emotional responses is that they are muted. I think this is mostly a reaction to the on-going construction project at my house. Living on a construction site can be unpleasant. I am living in limited space; it is difficult to keep things in order; the noise can be headache-inducing (especially for a lover of quiet like me); and I have not been able to invite friends over for months. You can add to these various temporary irritations the frustration at how slowly the construction has been proceeding; we are now in the fifth month of what was supposed to be a three-month project. I think muting my emotions has been a way to protect myself against the temptation to despair about the construction ever being done or the temptation to lose my temper with my contractor (which would not be helpful). But the downside of these muted emotions is that I don’t feel fully alive.
One way to get in touch with my submerged emotions is to consider the four aspects of life that I have long considered the pillars of happiness for me – meaningful work, connection with others, connection with nature, and connection with self.
- Meaningful work: I expected this to be the most problematic aspect of building a happy retirement, but it has not been a problem in these early days. I have luxuriated in time for intellectually stimulating reading, allowing my developing interests to lead me as I follow the links from one book to the next. I am pleased with my decision to invest in a $20 annual membership at the Portland, Maine public library, which provides excellent access to books and other resources. I have also taken the first steps toward finding the right volunteer activity for me (more about this in another post). I did not feel even a slight twinge of regret or anxiety as school began in the fall.
- Connection with others: This was problematic when I was working 80-hour weeks, and I expected retirement to provide me with the time to nurture old relationships and establish new ones. But while I’ve had time this summer and fall, living on a construction site means that I haven’t had a home I could invite people to. Not being able to invite friends over for lunch or dinner has definitely cramped my social life; and the stresses and uncertainties of the construction process have left me with less energy to initiate outings. I am not feeling happy about my connection with others at this point, but I am hoping to make progress on this front when the construction is finally done.
- Connection with nature: I always feel more connected to the natural world when I’m in Maine than I did in Pennsylvania. (Indeed, this was a primary motivation for coming back to live full-time in Maine.) My construction project has had both positive and negative effects on that sense of connection. On the positive side, the construction noise during the summer and early fall motivated me to spend as much time as possible out on the deck and in the back garden. The weather and long hours of daylight in summer were also conducive to getting out for an hour-long walk several mornings each week, and those walks are always a time for me to drink in the sounds, sights and scents of my rural neighborhood. At the same time, I am aware that I’ve had relatively little interest in gardening this summer and that I have taken relatively few photos of the garden, signs that I have not been feeling the connection to nature as keenly as I normally do. Moreover, as summer has turned to fall and the weather has turned cool and rainy, I can no longer spend time out on the deck and I am aware of how the construction on the front of my house has cut me off from the southwest-facing windows that bring in light (and, on sunny days, warmth) at this time of year. I also miss the way that the southwest window in my bedroom allowed me to observe the night sky, connecting me to the phases of the moon and the changes in constellations as the seasons turn. Happily, when I am finally able to move into my new bedroom, I will have a huge southwest window wall to reconnect me to the night sky (an especially important link to nature during our long winter nights).
- Connection with self: This is another area that I expected to improve with retirement. I was looking forward to having time for reflection, and I expected thoughts about my retirement experience to flow out of my fingertips and into this blog. That has not happened, and I am disappointed. Again, this may be primarily a result of the construction chaos, which is not conducive to quiet reflection, and the muting of my emotions, which cuts me off from connection with self.
So how am I feeling five months into my retirement? Neither happy nor miserable, but disappointingly flat. I suspect that this flat feeling is not a response to retirement, but to the chaos of construction. In many ways, I feel as though I am waiting for my retirement begin. In a few weeks, when the construction is done, and I have finally unpacked and moved into my new space, I am hoping that I will begin to experience the happiness of improved connection to self, connection to nature, and connection to others.