Work gives us a surprising amount of energetic self-expression. Regaining that magic when we leave work is the key to an enjoyable retirement.

Leaving work can be a massive disruption. So much of work is about feeling useful, belonging and contributing to something that’s important. When you retire, the structure of your work-life is gone, the sense of usefulness is gone, the stimulation and purpose is gone and your work-based social networks mostly end. It’s easy for your sense of self to ‘walk out the door’ just when you’re trying to make important decisions for your future.


Work also gives us a highly individual and often very surprising expression of our personal energies. These energies are often identified in the workplace by words such as strategist, supporter, social-magnet and doer. Retirement creates a crisis in the expression of your very individual energy, quite aside from your work expertise.

So when we look forward to a wonderful sense of freedom in retirement, it’s not surprising that the reality can be quite different.


The research is clear: we need a sense of purpose and quality relationships to stay energised and healthy. This applies at any time in our lives and certainly in retirement. So, what’s the best starting point to achieve purpose and quality relationships in our retirement?


What will I ‘do’? This is not a useful starting point, because it immediately limits our vision to what we already fantasise about. It leaves out a world of exciting possibilities. Often it includes a bucket list which is expensive, runs out too soon and doesn’t look so attractive the closer we get to it. 


What do I ‘bring to’ retirement (beyond my superannuation)? Sarah’s story shows that starting with your individual needs, is a much more useful approach.

Sarah retired from her pharmacy and knew she wanted to ‘give back’. She immediately volunteered sorting clothes for a local charity. There were three other women, obviously friends, doing the same task with her each week for two years. Then Sarah suffered a serious illness that kept her away from the charity for 4 months. During those 4 months, not one person from the charity inquired as to her wellbeing. She was deeply offended.

When Sarah recovered from her illness, she adopted a different approach. She recognised what her energisers were. Using that knowledge, she realised that a volunteer position with an NGO, helping people with a disability administer their medications more safely, would engage all her energisers. 

It was a success - Sarah was highly energised and rewarded by reliably sharing her expertise with people who really benefited from it and who respected her. She knew she belonged and was rewarded.

The key insights Sarah gained about herself were that she needed to:

  • do something useful
  • depend on reliable exchanges
  • be given deference
  • enjoy a sense of belonging in a stable group
  • share her subject mastery.

The Op-Shop hadn’t worked for Sarah because only one of her energisers was engaged i.e., doing something useful. The new volunteer position worked for Sarah, because all five of Sarah’s energisers were engaged. 

Gabrielle Leahy, Retire & Flourish