How can I make a smooth transition into retirement?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’m thinking of retiring, but I’ve always had a very busy and fulfilling career. How will I make the transition to retirement? Or should I continue working until I no longer can?

DEAR READER:

This might seem like an unusual subject for a doctor writing a column about medical problems, but I get asked this question all the time. Indeed, the decision you make about it might well affect your future health.

I’m assuming from your question that you have no financial need to continue working and that your health allows you to do so. Even if it does, there’s no doubt that one’s energy declines with age. If your work is intense and involves long hours, there will come a time when it’s no longer possible to do that work well. Have you reached that point? Only you can tell — although your spouse and close friends have a window on that answer, as well.

Another question to ask yourself is whether you want to stop work entirely, or just change work to make it less demanding and more part-time. Here at Harvard Medical School, many of the older faculty remain active at something, but have fewer responsibilities, less time — and less compensation. If you want to continue, but slow down, does the nature of your work make that possible?

If you do choose to retire, make sure that what you fill your days with is meaningful to you and keeps you coming back for more. Don’t make it too easy — or too hard. Perhaps you will volunteer at an animal shelter, baby-sit your grandchildren, play a sport, join a rock band, tutor young students, learn a new language or assist with local elections. And, as you enter retirement, keep these tips in mind:

  • Have places to be every week and make commitments. This helps to create structure in your day.
  • Pursue hobbies that involve creativity, rather than repetitive tasks.
  • Volunteer.
  • Learn something new.

As you decide whether to retire now, ask yourself: Would you be happier working than not working? There may be nothing more important than knowing what makes you happy.

For me, happiness has always boiled down to four things. The first is productivity at a task that I think helps others — things I can quantify and that I am responsible for. The other three: learning more about the things that interest me most, having fun, and spending time with those I love.

There’s a piece of advice that’s been attributed to different people: “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.'” I appreciate the wisdom in that quote, but I’ve heard people say they did wish for more office time — because their work was what made them happy.

Among the many people I’ve known at the end of their lives, only one regret has approached being universal: not having spent enough of the time they were given in making themselves, and others, happy.