The Psychology of Retirement: Coping with the Transition from Work by Derek Milne

Steven Schwartz is grateful for advice on how to be happily retired

February 28, 2013

Woody Allen once quipped that the way to give God a good laugh is to tell Him your plans for the future. Perhaps that is why I have never bothered with plans. I never planned to become an academic or a dean or a vice- chancellor. I certainly never planned to become a book reviewer. Opportunities just arose and I was happy to go along with them. So when I retired last year, I wasn’t worried. I thought something would come up; it always does.

My friends were appalled. What sort of fool jumps directly from work to leisure? Successful retirement requires careful planning and I was silly to leave my fate to fate.

As it happens, I did have kind of a plan. I copied it from old King Lear, who just wanted to “shake all cares and business…and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh…and hear poor rogues talk of court news; who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out”.

I was just about to put this plan into effect when I received The Psychology of Retirement for review. It was just what I needed. According to Derek Milne, this book is designed to “foster your maturing process in order to help you to achieve your potential and to secure personal happiness”. Although I am probably mature enough (a bit too ripe, perhaps), I don’t think I have yet reached my potential and I do like being happy. So I dived right in.

Milne notes that there are many books on retirement, but he claims that his is the first to “draw thoroughly on psychology” using “well- established theories, recent research evidence”, case studies and his professional psychological understanding of “what helps us to tick”.

(I have always wondered what makes me tick. I have reached some tentative conclusions that involve chocolate, wine and women, but this is probably not the right place to go into all that.)

Milne’s book ranges widely over many subjects. He shows why retirement may cause stress and how coping mechanisms help retirees to adapt. He suggests that “coping is like juggling” because we must learn to deal with a variety of stressors at the same time. He illustrates this stunning psychological insight with a drawing of a man juggling.

He goes on to show how retirees can “reframe” their expectations about retirement. “Thinking straight”, Milne says, “is clearly essential to coping successfully with retirement.” He recommends focusing “on the positives”. Sadly, he does not cite my favourite French psychologist, Emile Coué, who famously advised starting each morning with the words “day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better”.

It is important to maintain social and family relationships, Milne says, and he also favours healthy eating, exercise, sound finances, intellectual stimulation and having a purpose in life. In one of the book’s case studies, he shows how gardening in an allotment combines outdoor exercise with opportunities for problem-solving, the chance to talk with other gardeners and free food. This discussion is accompanied by a drawing of a couple enjoying a cup of tea in a garden.

For a book based on psychological research, there are some curious citations. For example, the claim that jogging and cycling can “delay ageing by up to 12 years” is sourced to the Daily Mail. On occasion, Milne also cites USA Today, The Week and The Times. In contrast, some claims (a quarter of retirees will have a “stressful complicated transition”) have no citation at all.

To sum up, retirement is a “rather special transition” for which Milne provides the RECIPE. Well, it’s not really a recipe, it’s an acronym for Resources, Exercise, Coping strategies, Intellectual activity, Purpose and Engagement (social support). It seems that psychologists, slaving away in their laboratories, have found that successful retirement requires money, exercise (“healthy body, healthy mind”), coping with stress, engaging in intellectual activity, finding a purpose and staying socially engaged.

There is nothing wrong with any of this, but it is very serious and earnest (there are no laughs in this book). I prefer my plan, which is to pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh (and try to make sure my money lasts as long as I do).

The Psychology of Retirement: Coping with the Transition from Work

By Derek Milne

Wiley-Blackwell, 204pp, £19.99

ISBN 9780470972663

Published 19 December 2012

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Reader's comments (1)

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