Thinking About Retirement? Time to Think About Your Psychological Portfolio

Psychologists help people prepare for the retirement transition.


Talk of preparing for retirement usually brings to mind financial issues. While you may have put a lot of thought and effort into preparing your financial portfolio, how much thought have you given to preparing your psychological portfolio? Many people neglect this critical aspect of planning for their future and that is where psychologists can play a key role.

Counseling psychologist Nancy K. Schlossberg, EdD, came up with the psychological portfolio phrase as a way to get people to think of retirement as a career change… not only are you leaving something, you are about to begin something new. In a study of 100 retirees, Dr. Schlossberg found that retirement is not one, but many transitions, that coping with these transitions depends on the following: the role of work and family in the life of the individual, the timing of retirement, the degree to which work has been satisfying, the degree to which retirement is planned for, the expectations one has about retirement, the degree to which a meaningful life is established and, of course one's health and sense of financial security. In other words, there are many factors that contribute to helping people negotiate the retirement transition.

Based on her study with retirees, Dr. Schlossberg identified the following ways in which people approach retirement:

  • Continuers who continued using existing skills and interests;

  • Adventurers who start entirely new endeavors;

  • Searchers who explore new options through trial and error;

  • Easy Gliders who enjoy unscheduled time letting each day unfold;

  • Involved Spectators who care deeply about the world, but engage in less active ways;

  • Retreaters who take time out or disengage from life.

Michigan State University psychology professor Norman Abeles, PhD, has found that those people most happy in retirement enjoy a variety of activities, ranging from volunteer work, exercise, continuing education and so on. Many on the road to retirement plan to spend a lot of time traveling, but increasing or unexpected physical aliments may make extensive traveling difficult, so be flexible in planning for retirement activities.

A life course perspective-looking at an individual's past, present, and future as a whole-explains why individuals differ in their retirement experience. Sociologist Phyllis Moen, with others, conducted a series of studies looking at the connection between retirement and physical and mental health and well-being. The studies examined what happens to people who exit the work role in a society where work is central to one's identity and also how the retirement experience differed for men and women. In a 1999 study presented at the American Psychological Association annual meeting, Dr. Moen and psychologist Jungmeen Kim, PhD, found that retirement brings different rewards for husbands and wives. Noting that most couples do not retire at the exact same time, Drs. Kim and Moen found various levels of marital satisfaction and depression for different combinations of employment and retirement. Newly retired women tend to be more depressed than continuously retired or not-yet-retired women, especially if their husbands remained employed. Newly retired men experience more marital conflict than nonretired men. In addition, newly retired men with employed wives tend to show higher marital conflict than newly retired men with nonemployed wives. However, men who are retired and re-employed with wives who are not employed have a higher morale than couples where neither spouse is working.


The more than 70 million baby boomers that will begin to retire in the next decade will transform the notion of retirement. Their very numbers will force a rethinking of what retirement means and how people will live their lives. These numbers force us to identify those critical factors that will define a "healthy" retirement.

Practical Application

Based on this and other psychological research, the American Psychological Association's Committee on Aging has initiated a "Life Plan for the Life Span 2012" (PDF, 3.4MB) project, which aims to inform people — no matter their age — about the new face of aging and retirement. The campaign includes user-friendly tips to allow people to plan for a successful retirement.
Dr. Schlossberg and other psychologists are also spreading the word on how to make retirement a beginning and not just an end. In her 2004 book Retire Smart, Retire Happy: Finding Your True Path in Life, the retired University of Maryland counseling psychology professor recommends that people attend pre-retirement seminars in which the psychological aspects of retirement are discussed in addition to the financial aspects.

Also, many universities are offering programs where retirees offer classes in their areas of expertise. One example is the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, which is part of the University of North Carolina. Be sure to check your local university to see what is offered since these programs are proliferating.

Finally, remember that retirement is a transition and transitions take time. You have left a structured life and it might take time to "get a new life." So be patient.

Cited Research

Kim, J. & Moen, P. Couples' Work Status and Psychological Well-Being in Older Adults, Session 4639, August 23, 1999, American Psychological Association.

Moen, P. A Life Course4 Perspective4 on Retirement, Gender, and Well-Being. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 131-144.

Moen, P., & Fields, V. (2002). Midcourse in the United States: Does unpaid community participation replace paid work? Aging International, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 21-48.

Schlossberg, N. (2004). Retire Smart, Retire Happy: Finding Your True Path in Life. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Qualls, S. & Abeles, N. (Eds.). (2002). Psychology and the aging revolution: How we adapt to longer life. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Quick, H. & Moen, P. (1998). Gender, Employment, and Retirement Quality: A Life Course Approach to the Differential Experiences of Men and Women. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol. 3, No.1, pp. 44-64.

American Psychological Association, April 14, 2005

Additional Sources

Ronald Manheimer (1999). A Map to the End of Time. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Vaillant, G. (2002). Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life. New York: Little, Brown and Company

Freedman, M. (1999). Prime Time: How Baby Boomers will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America. New York: Public Affairs.

Monitor on Psychology cover issue: Redefining Retirement (November 2004)

APA public information brochure: Psychologists Makes a Significant Contribution: Psychology and Aging