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Interview: Retirement: Recovering a Sense of Wonder


Julie Chahal

Julie Chahal

People retiring today are entering a new stage of life, which could last 20, 30 or more years.

"The challenge in retirement is to combine the fruits of maturity with the recovery of childhood wonder," says George Vaillant, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development.

This challenge, and what to do about it, is at the heart of Happily Retired: What Works . . . What Doesn’t (Polygon Consulting) by Canadian authors Julie Chahal and Linda Lucas. The 150-page volume maps the psychological and social geography of the retirement years, and it shows there is more than one way to "do" retirement.

AHB reached co-author Julie Chahal in Ottawa, Ontario.

Ruth Dempsey: What inspired you to write about retirement?

Julie Chahal: I retired quite young. Too often, retirement is linked to the concept of aging, rather than the idea of freedom and a new life chapter. I learned the hard way, by stumbling into every retirement pitfall and working my way back out again. I could have done with a close friend or a resource like Happily Retired to give me some direction. Other people have told me the same thing.

Co-author Linda Lucas knew there was an audience for the book. Linda noticed most retirement books focused on financial planning and retirement communities. She had already taken care of the basics. She was looking for advice on getting the most out of this stage of life. In other words, exploring the possibilities retirement had to offer.

The great gift of retirement is freedom. The challenge is to figure out what to do with that freedom.

RD: How does life change after retirement?

JC: Work takes up a lot of space in our lives. Also, in this society, our identity comes from the work we do. Work structures our day and provides a steady stream of challenges and learning opportunities. It offers opportunities for easy socializing with colleagues and provides a sense of relevance and achievement.

When it ends, we have to do all of this for ourselves. Many accomplished individuals actually dread retirement for this reason.

RD: So retirees are forced to create a new roadmap . . .
Happily Retired
JC: That’s right. In the book, we use Martin Seligman’s "happiness formula" as a tool to get people thinking. Seligman is the founder of Positive Psychology. The formula consists of three ingredients: pleasure, engagement and meaning. We believe these same ingredients are essential to a vibrant retirement.

The formula gave us a natural structure for our ideas. In the book, we devote a chapter to each of the themes. For example, in Finding Pleasure, we explore how pleasure enhances our ability to experience the world and we introduce the "Fun-o-meter" exercise.

The chapter on engagement points to fresh options: new work settings, volunteering, nurturing friendships and pursuing hobbies.

And the chapter on meaning focuses on inward journeys and reaching out to the community.

RD: Retirement is unique for each person . . .

JC: This is an important point. For much of our lives, society and biology dictate a lot of our priorities, coaxing us into assembly line conformity. With retirement comes the freedom to explore our interests and discover what we are passionate about, perhaps for the first time.

Sculptors talk about their creations emerging from a block of marble or wood. They start with rough cuts and slowly remove extraneous material, often revealing a work of art that even surprises the sculptor.

Retirement is the stage of life for refining and polishing ourselves. The result is some very interesting people.

RD: You say some pruning may be in order.

JC: Yes, pruning is about cutting back and reshaping in order to foster new and healthier growth. Having left the workforce, you may feel the need to reflect on other aspects of your life. Indeed, now may be the time to discard old habits, tired beliefs, unwanted possessions and even relationships that deplete your energy but offer little in return.

Think of pruning as a tool to help you steer clear of common retirement traps, such as over-scheduling and busy work. These leave little time for spontaneity and risk taking.

Also, I think few of us acknowledge just how much we change as we grow older. The things that matter to us change. Our interests change. Unexpected opportunities arise.

Regular pruning removes the deadwood and makes room for new growth.

RD: Happily Retired is brimming with practical ideas. How does the "gratitude journal" work?

JC: Keeping a gratitude journal is a great way to boost your spirits. The process is simple. You just jot down five things for which you are grateful each day. Make sure not to miss a day. This simple practice can make an amazing difference to your outlook. In fact, researchers have confirmed that taking the time to consciously count your blessings can significantly increase overall life satisfaction.

RD: I like the way you end each chapter with reflections from the authors . . .

JC: Thank you. We share a common commitment to the ideas in the book, but we are at various stages of implementing them in our lives.

The reflections allowed us to keep our message real. We also thought drawing on examples from our personal stories might resonate with the reader and spark a similar moment of reflection.

RD: You write: "Traditionally, the elders of a society were valued for their wisdom." Can you give me an example?

JC: I’ve worked as a volunteer on a number of projects with First Nation communities. With each exposure, I was struck by the profound respect accorded their elders and how the elders rise to the high expectations of them.

The Mi’kmaq have a special ceremony to induct a "traditional grandmother" to her place of honor and responsibility. In these communities, older adults recognize their lives continue to have meaning after they retire. I find this inspiring.

RD: Finally, what is one thing that works in retirement and one thing that doesn’t?

JC: A spirit of adventure works. Willingness to be a beginner and play can lead to wonderful discoveries.

For example, I like to make lists of things I’m pretty sure I can’t do, and then I check to see if I’m wrong. One of the items on my list was writing a book! Currently, I’m taking singing lessons. I’m embarrassingly bad, but improving enough to enjoy the music.

Getting stuck in a rut doesn’t work. This can happen when we overwhelm ourselves with too much of one kind of activity. Frequent culprits include golf, bridge and travel. In the right measure, all of these activities can add magic to our lives, but too much of them may dampen our spirits.

Editor’s note: The original interview appeared in AHB July/August 2009.