Happiness during retirement can be pretty elusive. That can come as a surprise to some, who might assume they'll be much happier once they finally stop working. In the years leading up to retirement, they may have dreamed about not being beholden to an employer's schedule, having plenty of free time to pursue hobbies and passions, and the lifting of mental stress related to work.

Finding a new pattern to your days, as well as a new source of purpose, can take some adjustment. Just as you plan for your financial health during retirement, it's important to plan for your emotional health as well.

Key Takeaways

  • A person's likelihood of experiencing clinical depression rises after retiring.
  • Work provides more than a paycheck: For many people, it facilitates social connections, provides a sense of purpose, and structures days with a regular routine.
  • In retirement, it's important to seek those things out yourself. This time, the choices are all yours.
  • Staying occupied mentally, physically, and socially can help make your retirement years happy ones.

Are Retirement and Depression Linked?

Retirement doesn't necessarily cause depression. But for some, 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 retirement.

How Retirement Can Impact Depression

Whether we realize it or not, work provides many of the ingredients that fuel happiness, including social connections, a steady routine, and a sense of purpose. When people stop working abruptly, without a plan to replace these elements, they may find that their happiness suffers. A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that there's typically an increase in happiness right after retirement, followed by a sharp decline a few years later. After that, in the long run, happiness levels typically do stabilize.

6 Tips to Combat Post-Retirement Depression

The key to enjoying retirement is finding new ways to achieve the rewards you once got from work. Below are a few ways to make the most of your retirement and stave off depression.

1. Stay in shape

A Merrill Lynch survey of retirees found that good health was the most important component of a happy retirement. Keeping active as you age helps to maintain your physical health and mental well-being. Whether it’s going for daily brisk walks or taking aerobics classes, it’s vital to make exercise part of your routine. If you can’t afford a gym membership, local recreation 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. The upside is that you can choose your companions and spend more of your time with beloved friends and family members.

For those who use their time to deepen existing bonds and create new ones, the benefits are far-reaching. Research suggests that staying socially connected improves longevity and 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, that slate is pretty much blank. That can be a tremendous benefit, but it also makes it easier to fritter away your days.

Retirees may fare better when they have a plan for the day, including what time to get up and what 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 and hitting the tennis court.

Content of this nature may be triggering to some people. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for free, confidential support. If you (or someone else) are in immediate danger, call 911. For additional help, see Verywell Mind's National Helpline Database.  

4. Keep working

While some retirees dive into retirement with gusto, others report feeling directionless. One of the answers might be post-retirement bridge employment. That is, stay in the workforce on a reduced schedule. 

Studies bear out the benefits: Research finds that those who continue to work part-time have better emotional and physical health than those who retire 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 better mental well-being than those who didn’t.

For those who want to give back, the possibilities and the needs are endless. You might try tutoring children at an elementary school or walking dogs at the local humane society. You can even search for virtual volunteer opportunities.

You’ll not only give greater purpose to your post-work life, but you'll 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. That’s why many sign up for college courses, often in subjects far afield from their former careers.

Two places to help you get started include Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes, which offer noncredit courses at colleges nationwide, and Road Scholar’s network of Lifelong Learning Institutes.

Of course, you don’t need to show up in person to build on your education. Many universities offer free and low-cost video courses. For a shorter commitment, TED Talks is an archive of fascinating lectures on subjects from black holes to birds.