Retirement and depression aren’t inextricably linked. But for much of the population, the reality of life after work doesn’t live up to its promise. Many older workers look forward to finally being able to focus on the things that give them the greatest pleasure. Yet, according to a study by the London-based Institute of Economic Affairs, the likelihood that someone will suffer from clinical depression actually goes up by about 40% after retiring. 

In large part that’s because work, whether we realize it or not, provides many of the ingredients that fuel happiness, including social connections, a steady routine and a sense of purpose. 

How to Cut the Retirement and Depression Link

The key to enjoying retirement is finding new ways to achieve those things. Here are a few ways to make the most of your retirement and stave off depression:

1. Stay in Shape

Keeping active as you age not only helps your physical health, but your mental well-being as well. A Merrill Lynch survey of retirees found that good health was the most important component of a happy retirement. 

Whether it’s going on brisk walks or taking a tai chi class, it’s vital to make exercise part of your routine. If you can’t afford a gym membership, local rec centers offer an array of activities, often at very competitive prices. 

2. Be Social  

When you step away from the workforce, you’re losing the built-in social networks that a steady job provides. In retirement, maintaining relationships often requires a little more work.

For those who use their time to deepen existing bonds and create new ones, the benefits are far-ranging. Research suggests that socially active retirees not only enjoy greater happiness, but also improved longevity and better overall health late in life.

3. Develop a Schedule

When you’ve got a job to go to, you don’t typically get to decide when you wake up and what activities you’ll tackle. In retirement, however, your slate is pretty much blank. That can be a tremendous benefit, but it also makes it easier to fritter your days away.  

Retirees often fare better when they have a plan for the day, including what time they rise and what tasks they hope to accomplish.  Sticking to a routine helps you maintain a sense of purpose and the feeling that you’re actually getting something done – even if it’s meeting friends for coffee or hitting the tennis court.

4. Keep on Working

While some retirees dive into retirement with gusto, others report feeling directionless. One of the answers might be what’s known as “post-retirement bridge employment” – that is, staying in the workforce on a reduced schedule. Studies seem to bear this out. A University of Florida researcher, for example, found that those who stayed in their field part-time had better emotional and physical health than those who retired completely.

5. Give Back

As it turns out, one of the best ways to take care of yourself in retirement is by taking care of others. A psychologist from Carnegie Mellon University found that seniors who volunteered 200 or more hours a year had a greater feeling of mental well-being than those who didn’t. 

For those looking to give back, the possibilities are endless. You might try tutoring kids at an elementary school or walking dogs at the local humane society. You’ll not only give greater purpose to your post-work life but have the opportunity to build social connections as well. 

6. Hit the Classroom

One of the best ways to stimulate your mind and safeguard against depression is by continuing to learn as an older adult. That’s why many sign up for college courses, often in subjects far afield from their former career. Two places to start: Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, which offer noncredit courses at colleges around the country, and Road Scholar’s network of Lifelong Learning Institutes.

Nowadays, you don’t even need to show up in person to build on your education. Harvard is among the universities that now offers free and low-cost video courses through its Open Learning Initiative.  Or for a shorter commitment, TED Talks cover subjects as wide-ranging as creativity and deep sea creatures in less than half an hour.

The Bottom Line

Retirement should be a time to enjoy the fruits of your hard work. However, happiness can be elusive unless you have a plan to keep yourself occupied mentally, physically and socially.