Boosting happiness and mental health in retirement

The transition from work to retirement can be exciting and liberating — but it can also be stressful and even confronting.

Research shows a high proportion of retirees find themselves unexpectedly affected by feelings of purposelessness and boredom, too often leading to depression and other health problems.

Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to stay happy and mentally resilient in retirement, so you can enjoy your new freedom to the fullest. There are also organisations to support you as you enter a new stage of life, many featured in this year’s Colonial First State Charity Boost.

Like a muscle, the brain needs regular training to stay healthy. The core of neuroplasticity is simple but powerful — use it or lose it.


Starting a conversation about mental health

TV personality and ABC Mental Health Week Ambassador Todd Sampson says that although mental health issues impact nearly all Australians in some way, as a nation we still tend to be reluctant to talk about them.

“Mental illness is often hidden in a cloud of shame or uncertainly. But it doesn’t need to be,” Sampson explains. “Just as the brain demands to be respected because of its unfathomable capability, so does mental illness. It’s simply the other side of the coin that is equally scary, wondrous and important.”

“Life would be so much better for everyone if we just talked about it and supported each other,” he says.

So why are retirees especially vulnerable to depression — and what can we do to overcome or prevent it?


A time of change

Age Discrimination Commissioner and former Senator and Minister for Education, Susan Ryan, says many retirees are not prepared for the challenges that retirement brings.

“Many people are affected by issues with their finances, how they get a sense purpose and how they contribute to society. Relationship changes can also be difficult — for instance, you may suddenly be staying at home with a spouse who you’ve only seen sporadically over their working lives.”

But while a lack of purposeful activity can increase the risk of becoming depressed, Ryan says retirement can also bring enormous opportunities to devote time and energy to the causes and activities that matter most to us.

“Once you retire you can decide to contribute to society in your own way, through part-time employment or volunteering. You can also choose to develop yourself — taking up an interest you’ve never had time for, writing a book, painting, or pursuing a sport.”


Keeping the brain active

Todd Sampson says this kind of activity and stimulation is vital for warding off depression and staying mentally fit. In the popular ABC TV documentary Redesign My Brain, Sampson investigated brain plasticity and the effectiveness of targeted training in reversing mental ageing.

“Plasticity has shown us that we all have the ability to improve our brain,” he said.

“Like a muscle, it needs regular training to stay healthy. The core of neuroplasticity is simple but powerful — use it or lose it.”
Fortunately, Sampson says, brain training is easier than people might think.

“All the scientists agreed that 20 minutes of brisk walking a day is excellent for your brain. And, if you can add a strategy like memorising locations or license plates, even better.”

“I also recommend finding ways to incorporate brain exercise into everyday life. Try and remember all the names of the people at the next dinner party. Stop using your phone as a surrogate brain and memorise some of the numbers yourself. The next time you need to do a calculation, do it in your head. Making brain health a priority is the critical first step.”


Putting some structure in your day

Jeff Kennett, former Victorian premier and founding Chairman of depression support and awareness organisation beyondblue, says the key to happiness in retirement is structuring your time around meaningful activity.

“Retirees need to have something they have to get up to do every day,” Kennett says.

Like Sampson, Kennett says physical activity is crucial, with research showing that exercise can be particularly helpful to people with mild to moderate depression2.

“Remaining active doesn’t have to be difficult or demanding but it does mean that you get out and go for a walk, morning and afternoon, or you do a bit of gardening,” Kennett said.

Kennett also points out the importance of keeping relationships with the younger generation going.

“If you have not done so in the past, you should learn how to use a computer so you can stay in touch with your children and grandchildren, using the mediums that they use.”


Give your mental health a boost

If you’re finding the shift to retirement challenging, remember that you’re not on your own. Organisations like beyondblue are there to help you rediscover your sense of purpose and put valuable skills and experience to work in a good cause.


1 Black Dog Institute: (2014) Exercise and depression.
Source: Colonial

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