May 10, 2016 by Jean
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how the retirement years can provide us with an opportunity to become more who we really are. I feel as though retirement has allowed me to grow in many directions, developing capacities that had been mostly dormant. And this kind of growth makes me feel more fully alive.
This experience reminds me of the concept of “self-actualization,” which I learned about in one of my first college psychology classes. As defined by the twentieth-century psychologist Abraham Maslow, self-actualization is a need or desire that human beings have to develop their capabilities, moving toward realizing their full potential.
It makes some sense that the experience of self-actualization would be more common among those who are older, and especially among retirees. Maslow theorized that self-actualization was at the top of a “hierarchy of needs;” people could only focus on actualizing their potential when other, more basic needs – for physiological survival, safety and security, love and belonging, and esteem – were met. We can think of our adult working years as times when we are focused on meeting our own basic survival needs, on finding a living situation that is reasonably safe and secure, on building families and friendships, and on developing skills (both at work and in interpersonal relationships) for which we are esteemed. Only when these layers are in place, according to Maslow, can we focus on self-actualization.
The later adult years may provide more opportunities for self-actualization than the younger adult years in part because our more basic needs have been met, but also because, as we grow older, we are more likely to understand who we are and what our strengths, weaknesses and capabilities are. This self-knowledge is important for actualizing our potential. The later adult years may also free us from some of the pressure of other people’s needs and demands that can dominate our lives at younger ages. I remember my mother telling me when I was in my thirties that she had not felt free to be herself until after her own mother died. (My mother was in her early sixties when this happened.) My mother was an introvert in a family of extraverts, and her mother was particularly critical of her emotional reserve and preferences for solitude. With her mother’s death, she was released from the pressure to try to be who her mother wanted her to be. The demands of parenthood may also be reduced in the later adult years, when children are more likely to have left the parental home and be established in their own adult lives. When these conditions for self-actualization are in place, retirement can provide the time to pursue dreams and engage in self-actualizing activities and creative efforts.
Does this mean that all retirees will find themselves on a path to self-actualization? Unfortunately not. Poverty or poor health can mean that trying to meet basic physiological needs dominate an elder’s life. Even when basic physical needs are met, those who experience financial insecurity or who are in living situations that do not feel safe will find their energies focused there. The death or serious illness of a spouse, an unwanted divorce, estrangement from a child, or social isolation can all mean that needs for love/belonging are not being met. What about meeting our needs for esteem? For many people, work is an important source of esteem and retirement may be a threat to esteem. Whether or not that is so will likely depend on whether we leave the workplace feeling like our contributions are recognized and valued and whether we have alternative ways to continue using those valued skills in retirement.
I have been very lucky to enter retirement well-housed and healthy, feeling reasonably secure in my retirement savings, with a wonderful network of friends who provide me with a sense of belonging, and with skills that I enjoy using and that I know others value. Retirement has given me the time and opportunities to use and further develop my valued skills in new settings (e.g., teaching at the senior college) and to develop capabilities that were undeveloped during my working years. I feel as though this stage of my life is making it possible for me to become more fully who I am and who I want to be.