Finding Your Retirement State of Mind

Every once in a while you meet a senior who seems to have retirement figured out. They appear to be genuinely happy with their state of affairs and making the most of each day. When you ask about their retirement experience they shine a genuine smile and are happy to regale you – often at length – about how wonderful it is to be in their shoes. Their happiness is infectious and you may find yourself caught up in their joy. Although it is safe to assume not everything is perfect in their world, their overall outlook is positive.

My wife and I recently spent a weekend in Carmel Valley trying to escape the latest Bay Area heat wave. While dining in a shaded patio beside a burbling fountain decorated with playful water nymphs we found ourselves seated next to a retired couple. This couple had retired to the Carmel area more than 15 years ago. Before we even got our menus they began sharing their years together as a retired couple along with just how happy they were to be retired.

The best part was how excited and animated they became reliving the moments and experiences they enjoyed along the way. Between extensive travels abroad and heavy involvement with the local community they painted a vivid picture of a fulfilling and exciting retired life. Each new arrival to the restaurant bid them hello and everyone in the room seemed to know them. This retired couple seemed to be equal parts proud and happy to be an integral part of their local community.

Finding the right retirement state of mind can help you realize a happy and fulfilling second act. Here are some helpful pointers I gleaned from our recent encounter at the restaurant:

Become involved in something that matters. Carmel Valley is compact, but like any small community you can find a lot going on if you know where to look. Our new friends recommend we identify what most interests us personally. For example, I love spending time at the ocean, so why not see if I might contribute a day or two each week working at Point Lobos National Park or the Aquarium on Cannery Row. It is not about the money but rather staying engaged doing something you like. My wife would like to help out the significant senior population in the area and so might offer to deliver food or drive those who would otherwise remain homebound. Local clubs, societies and organizations are always looking for volunteers to assist during special events. There are a wide variety of options when it comes to possible areas to contribute your time. In fact, we have heard from more than one couple that one of the biggest problems among the newly retired is suddenly finding yourself committed to doing too much.

Don’t limit your possibilities. Just because you have not done something in the past does not mean you cannot give it a whirl now. With time to do what you want, retirement offers a second chance to try new things. A little experimentation might uncover a hidden passion or lead to an exciting new undertaking. Consider your retirement a blank chalkboard you are free to fill with whatever strikes your fancy. Try not to be overly picky on the first pass. You can make adjustments later. And if after your initial investigation you find you don’t like a particular selection, just pull out your handy eraser to make room for something else.

Get to know your neighbors. Living in the frantic Bay Area with everyone enmeshed in all-consuming careers is not the most conducive environment when it comes to getting to know the people on your block. Sure, we recognize one another and say “hi” when we pass on the street. But at least for us it has been difficult to build close relationships. In retirement, you will no longer be time constrained and have the chance to get to know those people next door and across the street. Who knows what common interests you may share. Neighborhoods used to be much more closely knit and supportive. With a little time and effort maybe you can bring a little of that back into your life.

Stay active. There is a time and a place to rest and relax during retirement. But it is also important to have an active life that allows you to stay involved with living. You cannot experience new things tucked into the same day to day existence. Our restaurant friends seemed to be in perpetual motion. And when they did take a break they were planning their next adventure. Just how active you want to be is up to you and your personal tastes. But try not to deprive yourself of that satisfied feeling at the end of the day after you have accomplished something that matters or tried something new.

Written for my blog on US News & World.

A Comfortable Silence

Some years back while dining at a local restaurant I spotted an “older” couple a few tables down the way. There was nothing particularly noteworthy other than the fact they did not seem to have much to talk about. Glancing surreptitiously their way during the course of the evening I don’t recall catching them engaged in conversation once. I remember whispering to my wife “I hope we are never like that, with nothing to say to each other.”

What I did not realize at the time is some couples are comfortable with silence. They don’t feel the need to fill the air with small talk. They are perfectly happy simply being together. There is no pressure to perform, no need to come up with a good one, just a relaxed air of familiarity and acceptance. And it is a good thing.

It’s ok to be quiet. I truly enjoy mornings when I find my way to the backyard with a cup of java in hand and plop myself into a lawn chair. All the noise I need comes from nature around me getting under way for a new day. Birds of all shapes and sizes flit around the feeder engaging in their own dialogues. A slight breeze flutters the leaves in nearby trees causing a pleasant swishing. The pair of hawks that has taken up residence in the neighborhood circles above, climbing ever higher while voicing their distinct cries as they survey their kingdom. Misty the cat finds a comfortable spot at my feet and commences her enthusiastic purring of contentment. All the while not a word has been spoken and yet a smile graces my face. It’s ok to be quiet.

When I drive I rarely turn on the radio. I prefer to be alone with my thoughts, taking in the passing landscape. Although music can be relaxing I find all the advertisements and persistent news updates far more distracting than calming. Instead I quietly tool on down the road. As my dad would say, “the silence is deafening.” I find this time to be a perfect opportunity to catch my breath, let the stress gradually seep out of my body, and even Bronze of Old couple on benchthink up a good blog topic every now and then.

I admit I have never been one for small talk. Sure I could hold my own at those business cocktail parties and actually found it easy to raise a laugh or two. But after about an hour at it I find myself growing tired losing interest. I always feel if I have something worthwhile to say I will. If not, why monopolize the airways? There are more than enough people impatiently waiting for any slight lull in the conversation to share their wisdom and insights.

My wife and I enjoy the quiet we share. Neither feels the need to talk just for the sake of talking. We share our thoughts and feelings as they naturally arise. As fate would have it on occasion we find ourselves at dinner silently enjoying being together. Perhaps some younger couple looks on feeling pity mistakenly assuming we cannot think of a thing to talk about. Quite the contrary – we could not be happier. We are comfortable and content being near one another – nothing more needs to be said.

And while enjoying those quiet moments our hands remain iPhone free, a rarity for sure. Most people these days whether at dinner or in line or walking down the street do so with their ever present phone monopolizing their attention. It is one thing to be together in silence with your attention focused on one another. It is quite another to abandon your date as your attention is pulled away toward unrelated topics. I find it disrespectful and belittling to pay more attention to a phone than to the real live person across the table. The message sent is you are not as important as the next text or YouTube or funny cat picture. Too many feel they cannot do without their always connected life unaware they are missing real connections with real people right in front of their eyes. (Getting down from my soapbox now…)

My dad has always been a listener. He pays patient attention to the conversation and on occasion interjects something worthwhile. Dad never feels the need to say something just for the sake of speaking. There are plenty people out there more than happy to assume that role. The fact that he married a skilled conversationalist is a plus. Between the two they are the perfect couple to invite to events as their busy calendar reflects.

The world we live in is a noisy boisterous place with perpetual input assailing our senses. It is not easy to find a safe haven away from it all where you can hear yourself think. But it is important to find a silent moment, a time to refocus and recharge. Some down time in a busy world is a good thing. For my wife and me a little silent togetherness proves to be just the ticket.