RETHINKING RETIREMENT – A GUIDE FOR MAKING CHOICES
Chapter 6: The Pillars of Resilience
“Resilience is about the ability to struggle well.”
– Christopher Peterson
Now that we have examined the typical changes you could encounter in retirement and why resilience can help you adapt to them, let’s look at specific ways to grow more resilience. In this chapter, we present the three Pillars of Resilience and how they contribute to your well-being. We look at mental, emotional, and physical resilience and present you with research and strategies that can help you strengthen your overall ability to bounce back from life’s adversities.
As you plan and live your retirement years, you are seeking a better balance in many aspects of life: between continued contribution and play, giving and getting, resting and stretching yourself, accepting and adapting. Resilience involves balancing the three Pillars of Resilience as well, because when you choose to grow one of them, you strengthen the others and fortify your well-being.
“When we hold limiting beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world, it’s like having ‘fake news’ inside our heads, distorting our reality, and producing poorer life choices.”
– Judith Lowe
More than anything, how you think about the events in your life influences your well-being and your resilience. You have certain beliefs – thoughts that you have repeated to yourself so often that you come to believe they are true. These beliefs form your mindsets, which in turn affect what actions you take and ultimately how you perceive everything that happens to or around you.
For example, if you believe that retirement is just an extended vacation, you may be less inclined to forge new, meaningful relationships or activities. If you think that your best days are behind you, you may settle for a routine of empty busyness or boredom. On the other hand, if you challenge yourself to overcome these limiting beliefs, you are less inclined to shy away from new experiences and explore possibilities.
The concept of mindset comes from the research of Carol Dweck. In her book, Mindset, she presents two different mindsets – growth mindset and fixed mindset.
Growth and Fixed Mindsets
A growth mindset is formed through the belief that you can continue to grow and learn throughout life. If you have a growth mindset, you thrive on new challenges because you believe that with effort, you can accomplish whatever you set out to do. Failures are just an indication that you need to find a better way or try harder.
A fixed mindset comes from the belief that you either have what it takes, or you don’t, and that no amount of effort will change things. Appearing to be successful or smart is more important than putting forth your best effort to succeed. With a fixed mindset, you tend to give up more quickly and are less inclined to try something new when faced with an obstacle or failure.
You may have a fixed mindset in some areas of your life and a growth mindset in others. That’s why noticing your mindset is so important. If you can catch yourself showing up in a certain situation with a fixed mindset, you can start training yourself to think differently about it and eventually develop a growth mindset. If you can notice the joy and possibilities that a growth mindset provides you as they happen, there is a good chance that you will replicate the experience. It’s like taking your brain to the gym – the more you practice your “muscle” of noticing, the stronger your mental resilience.
John was looking forward to his retirement but was worried about his health and whether he would get bored without his work routine. With a family history of deaths before age 75, he was convinced that there was little he could do to improve his health – it was what it was. In the area of health practices, he had a fixed mindset. John had started taking a variety of virtual cooking classes and was planning to become the resident chef in his household. He was well on his way to developing a new hobby and was excited about learning new skills and different cuisines. In this area of his life, he had a growth mindset. Lo and behold, a passion for healthy eating and meal preparation grew and he started to change his fixed mindset about his ability to improve his health.
Curiosity and Questions
As Carol Dweck’s research and John’s story demonstrate, you can change your mindset! It turns out that one of the key ingredients for doing this is curiosity.
Bruce D. Perry, who has studied the benefits of curiosity in children and why it fades as they age, says that curiosity incites us to explore, which helps us discover new possibilities and new skills and develop the confidence to keep exploring. We believe curiosity is an essential part of Rethinking Retirement and can propel you from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. And as we saw in Chapter 3 with Daniel Levitin, the key to keeping an ageing brain young is your willingness to be curious and try new things.
The questions you ask yourself can also help you switch from a fixed to a growth mindset. In her book, Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, Marilee Adams talks about being on the Learner Path and the Judger Path and how we can switch paths, or mindsets, by asking questions. Going down the Judger Path puts you in blame mode: Whose fault is it? What’s wrong with them? Retirees with a fixed mindset are more inclined to blame their boredom or inactivity on someone or something else, like their partner or lack of money.
Switching to the Learner Path and adopting more of a growth mindset can be achieved by asking yourself questions like: Is this how I want to feel? How else can I think about this? With a growth mindset, you are going to ask how you can take charge and make the best choices for you to thrive in retirement.
Once you start noticing your mindset in certain situations, you are better positioned to question your thinking, change your actions, and strengthen your mental resilience.
“You see, I think negative emotions are always trumped by positive emotions.”
– Leonardo DiCaprio
Noticing your mindset puts you in touch with what you are thinking and how you are feeling. It is as if you are asking yourself: What did I just say to myself that makes me feel this way? The second pillar of resilience is about noticing and navigating your emotions.
That Brain of Yours
Knowing more about the evolution of the human brain can help you better navigate your emotions.
Our favourite metaphor for explaining this comes from Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Happiness Hypothesis, in which he presents the elephant and the rider. The elephant represents the emotional brain, the oldest part of the human brain that is shared with other species. The rider portrays the rational brain, the most evolved part of the brain which distinguishes us from other animals.
With a mental picture of a rider on an elephant, you can easily see where the power resides – with the emotional brain. When the emotional brain is triggered by thoughts or events, it goes into survival mode and can easily overpower the rational brain. The amygdala, which is buried deep in the emotional brain, deals with fear and the stress response. It can cause the elephant to quickly go into reaction mode, perceiving events as threats and draining the rational brain of its cognitive resources. When this happens, the rational brain can become paralyzed and either not make decisions or make poor ones.
So, what is the rider to do when this six-ton beast is overwhelmed with emotions and charging? At this stage in our metaphor, you could be coming to the conclusion that the rider is “good,” and the elephant is “bad” – that the best thing to do is suppress emotions. Neuroscience has another point of view. Emotions are what power the journey – they provide us with energy, drive, ambition, and desire. Rather than trying to silence emotions so that the rational brain can do all the work, the goal is to get the rider and elephant working together.
Let’s see how this analogy could play out in retirement. You’re living the good life in your honeymoon period of your personal retirement transition. Suddenly you hit a wall – you’re feeling lost, suddenly bored, and maybe angry that it’s not feeling fun anymore. You turn to things that have brought you pleasure in the past – another trip, a new set of golf clubs, an expensive spa treatment – none of them help. Or, rather than turning to pleasurable outlets, you flee inwards – you stop contacting friends, you become irritable with your partner, happy hour starts earlier and ends later, and maybe you start feeling depressed. In either scenario, the elephant has taken charge and you, as the rider, are less in control and less able to resolve your situation on your own.
Learning how to navigate emotions is what emotional resilience is about – recognizing and working with both positive and negative emotions. With the many changes and transitions you could experience in retirement, this is a skill worth mastering!
Positive and Negative Emotions
Positive Psychology postulates that all emotions are valid, and that resilience is not about eliminating your negative emotions and always being happy. The goal is to have a positivity ratio of more positive emotions than negative ones.
The concept of a positivity ratio was developed by Barbara Fredrickson. She created the “broaden and build” theory of positive emotions which confirms that negative emotions narrow people’s thinking about possible actions, and positive emotions open people’s minds to possibilities. This is why having more positive than negative emotions in retirement is so important. Positive emotions not only affect your well-being, but they help you adapt to the many changes you might experience in this phase of life and choose options that are best for you.
As you plan and live your life in retirement, you want to be energized to discover the myriad of possibilities available to you and strengthen your capacity to weather the adversities that come your way. Numerous studies confirm that people who experience more positive emotions tend to think more flexibly and creatively, are more open-minded, and tend to cope better with stressful events in their lives.
This is not to say that you should avoid having negative emotions. It is more a question of noticing them and learning how to work with them. For example: sadness from the death of a loved one helps you grieve; anger at being belittled as an older person prompts you to defend yourself; guilt over having made a thoughtless comment prompts you to seek forgiveness and make amends; fear causes you to escape danger and seek safety.
These are very useful human reactions and by knowing when you need these negative emotions you can choose to act the way you want in a given situation. It is when you get stuck in negative emotions and can’t move past them that they can cause problems and affect your well-being.
After a nine-month honeymoon period in his retirement transition, Paul was struggling. Not only was he feeling lost, but he was also finding fault with everything and everybody. His wife had started “walking on eggshells” as she didn’t know when an emotional outburst would occur. In other words, Paul’s elephant had taken charge and he was struggling to take control of his new life. Fearing that Paul would slip into depression, his wife convinced him to see a retirement coach. With his coach, Paul was able to pinpoint his hopes for retirement and his fears of being bored and feeling useless. He realized that he still had not let go of his work identity and that he hadn’t thought about what could give this new life meaning. By recognizing the negative emotions linked to his fears and tapping into the positive emotions of hope and optimism, he got creative about exploring possibilities for more meaningful contributions and leisure activities.
Fear is a frequent emotion felt before and during retirement. As you saw in Paul’s story, fear is a powerful emotion. Approaching retirement, or if you are already retired, you may share some of the fears we frequently hear from our clients: outliving the money; not having the health to enjoy retirement (and if you are in the U.S., not being able to afford healthcare); social isolation; boredom and loss of purpose; not feeling useful; having to put plans on hold to care for loved ones. Such fears are real and recognizing them and planning actions can help you avoid becoming paralyzed and stuck.
So how do you get hold of your fear and keep the elephant focused on what is really important and possible? How do you work with the logic of the rider to figure out the best way forward?
One of our favourite books is Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. The author reminds us that every time we are faced with something new, fear raises its head in one form or another. She points out that it isn’t what we fear that freezes us into inaction; it’s our fear that we won’t be able to handle it. According to her, the only way to overcome fear is to do something – by pushing through the fear. How many times have you said to yourself: What took me so long – it wasn’t so bad! after passing from fear to action?
Jeffers offers a simple mantra to help you confront and overcome your fears. Say to yourself: I’ll handle it! just like you have managed to handle every other fear or challenge in life!
With the wisdom gained throughout life and the ability to see patterns, retirees are well-equipped to navigate their fears and handle whatever life throws their way. And recent research during the COVID-19 pandemic confirms that this wisdom extends to emotional resilience among older people.
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
– Albert Einstein
We have now examined the first two Pillars of Resilience – mental and emotional resilience. The third pillar, physical resilience, feeds the first two and balances your overall well-being. At this stage in the game, you are undoubtedly aware that your body is ageing, that you have more aches and pains than in your thirties, and that it takes you longer to heal from a physical injury or ailment. We are here to remind you that you can continue to thrive despite your ailments, just differently. We invite you to rethink what physical health means to you.
There are a variety of inputs to physical health – things like movement, healthy eating, good sleep hygiene, and stress management techniques – which all contribute to your resilience. Physical resilience is about finding the right balance of these inputs that works for you. It’s about rethinking and learning how to equip yourself to bounce back from various ailments, be they a result of the normal ageing process or disease.
Let’s be clear about what we mean by physical activity. We are talking about any type of movement you incorporate into your day. Any movement, if done regularly, is going to have a positive impact on your well-being and longevity. You don’t have to sign up to a gym or run a marathon to incorporate movement into your life. Researcher Kelly McGonigal, author of The Joy of Movement, states that movement – “any kind, any way, any duration” – counts, as long as you feel the benefit and enjoy it.
If you have already made movement an important part of your life, you know how much better you feel once you have completed your physical activity. Not only do you feel stronger physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. So regular daily movement is good for your physical health as well as your mental and emotional well-being.
The physical benefits are numerous. Physically active adults generally have a lower incidence of diseases often prevalent among retirees: type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, heart disease, strokes, and depression to name a few. Well-being is not just the absence of disease, and physically active people benefit in numerous ways from their habit of movement. They sleep better, they have enhanced bone health, and they have a healthier body mass and muscular fitness. All of this leads to a better quality of life – something retirees want and need to enjoy their retirement years.
The benefits of movement go beyond physical health. Physical activity causes your brain to release several chemicals that make you feel good, be more willing to persist, and become more social. The endorphins and endocannabinoids released by the brain, in particular, are social bonding brain chemicals which can help you better connect with people and potentially avoid loneliness and isolation.
Kelly McGonigal’s research reveals that where you move makes a difference as well. She says that exercising in nature increases hope and the feeling that life is worthwhile. Add in exercising with other people and the bonding brain chemicals enhance your sense of belonging and community as well as a can-do attitude – just what you want to thrive in retirement!
If there was ever a time that many people learned about the importance of movement, it was during the COVID-19 pandemic. Deprived of gyms and group sporting activities, many people took to exercising outside, creating their own gyms at home, or joining virtual exercise classes. Walking outside with others became one of the primary sources of social connection and exercising in nature helped keep hope alive.
All this to say that moving is good for your mental, emotional, and physical well-being. For many people, physical activity has helped them avoid taking antidepressants.
Even though movement is one of the best ways to build physical resilience, there are other inputs that contribute to your physical well-being – things like a healthy diet, good sleep habits, and stress management techniques.
Many retirees make vitality in retirement a priority. Vitality has to do with how alive you feel, having the energy to do the things that are important to you. Obviously, this can be quite subjective, as you are the judge of how energetic you feel on a given day.
Choosing vitality and believing that you can adopt a healthier lifestyle are important first steps. The next step is to start thinking differently about each of the vitality inputs and learn more about the benefits. You can then choose which ones will become more of a focus for you in retirement.
For example: what if you viewed healthy eating habits as fuel to give you the energy to do the activities you want to do in retirement; what if a good night’s sleep was how you generate the energy and cognitive functioning to act on your retirement plans; what if breathing techniques helped you manage your stress and reduce harmful hormones in your body? Only you know which of these vitality inputs are most important to your physical well-being and resilience.
Exercise 11: Your Resilience Map is designed to help you deepen your awareness about mental, emotional, and physical resilience and discover the benefits of strengthening your resilience skills at this stage of life.
CHAPTER SIX KEY MESSAGES
- The three Pillars of Resilience – mental, emotional, and physical resilience – help you strengthen your well-being.
- By growing one resilience pillar, you reinforce the others.
- A growth mindset is the prerequisite for mental resilience.
- Emotional resilience is about navigating positive and negative emotions.
- Physical resilience gives you the energy and cognitive strength to thrive in retirement.
- Choosing the vitality inputs that most benefit your retirement lifestyle contributes to physical resilience – movement, healthy eating, good sleep habits, stress management techniques.