Retirement Redesigned

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Monday, July 15, 2024

Retirement Redesigned

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Opening up to Mental Health

The big subject in retirement is health.

As we get older, it is after all, the subject that forces itself into our lives and daily awareness. It affects every part of who we are. People were made to retire because it was supposed that they were not healthy enough to keep on working. We are grateful for good health. We talk about the blessings of being healthy and when we hear about some or other unfortunate person that has had a stroke or has been diagnosed with cancer or has suffered from who knows what, we hear dark comments about good health being “everything in life”. It is known now, based on research, that health, particularly physical health, is the number one worry in the retirement community. Ask any retiree what medication they are on and they can talk about their chronic issues at length.

Just about every retiree has some or other health issue. Everywhere in the media there is advice about what to eat or not to eat and how to stay fitter or protect yourself by exercising. Weight problems are a constant and plague many of us. Prostate cancer and breast cancer have generated minor medical industries. Sleep issues and bladder problems are always there in the background. Our focus most of the time is on these physical health issues. But less attention is given to mental health. There is less knowledge and apart from broad generic information, there is also less understanding of what constitutes sound mental health.

Taking a random view, looking around we see some retirees that enjoy their lives and seem to be happily at ease in their world most of the time. And of course, there are those that have a rather harder time of it. They become depressed more easily and appear to find little real pleasure in their lives. Their mental health is constantly on the skids and they seem much of the time to be victims and painfully self-focused. Between these two extremes there are, of course, many more shades of being.

To gain a better understanding of the personality issues that drive these behaviors it is worth looking at where exactly personality theory and knowledge are right now. Academics and well-informed practitioners agree that all the extended research and investigation over many years can be shaken down and nailed to what is known as the “Big 5” personality attributes. This is where we must place the focus of our attention. While each one of the five big personality clusters deserves our investigation and understanding, and while we acknowledge that the vast issue of mental health is beyond our reach for the moment, for purposes of this discussion let’s focus mainly on “Openness” one of the five. This is defined by one’s willingness to be open to new experiences and to welcome change. It is the trait that encourages creativity and an experimental approach to life. It indicates an appreciation of art, adventure, emotion and is characterized by intellectual curiosity

In contrast, people in the retirement community are quite often seen as ‘closed’ and unwilling to embrace change. They prefer to stick to their own surroundings and established routines. They are fearful of taking risks and can have problems trusting others even their own family members. All these behaviors are in direct contradiction to the openness we refer to.

Psychologists used to learn that personality, once established in childhood stays more or less fixed for life. Now days, with much new research, it is known that not only behavior, but even personality can be influenced and can be changed.

Back to mental health in retirement, if retirees could develop a greater degree of the openness we describe, we believe that they would be better off and find more satisfaction in their lives. It might require some self-adjustment and personal training, but the effort would be worth it.

If you are wondering about yourself and your own level of openness, it would be worth taking the simple Big 5 free ten-minute personality test checking how you rate on all five factors of the assessment. In addition see how you rate specifically on openness, see

Also, have a look at the TED talk by Brian Little: “Who are you really? The puzzle of personality” He gives an interesting insight into the Big5

Johann is the founding partner of Reset Retirement where we focus on assisting people with planning for the non-financial aspects of their lives after full-time work. He had a long career in executive search and leadership as the founding partner and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles in South Africa where he was the head of the company’s board practice.


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