Too often, retirement is portrayed as a feeling. Depicted as a utopian sense of time, during which past actions continually foster positive thoughts and feelings, guiding the retiree through the remainder of life. This philosophy makes for moving and emotionally charged commercials and brochures, but a retiree’s overreliance on feelings instead of actions may not only confuse them during this transition, but also blur their long-awaited plans and goals.

Of course, this is not the only time feelings have been implicated as problematic for clients. As advisors, we often warn against the dangers of making “emotional” investment decisions, which often parallel some of the same challenges feelings cause retirees. When it comes to investing for retirement, advisors have an established framework from which to work and follow. We gather data, analyze, implement and monitor. As a result of these processes and discipline, positive feelings and outcomes generally result over time and through consistency. Therefore, it could be said that successful investing is guided by actions and self-control, not by whims, feelings or the latest news flash.

If however, investors let their feelings get the best of them, opportunities can be missed, fears can limit their next move, and goals can end up delayed. Feelings can not only slow down and muddle the investment process, they can also pollute a person’s retirement.  This is primarily because there’s no pre-set action plan to follow once you retire, often leaving the door wide open for feelings to get in the way and alter a person’s retirement path. 

Initially, freedom from the alarm clock’s ring, a demanding schedule, and those long meetings are usually welcomed and well-deserved. However, let’s not forget the rock from which we are all cut. We’re human and creatures of habit. Just as grass and flowers wither without water, doing little or nothing can not only create bad habits but also subsequent feelings that aren’t in line with how people expect to feel throughout retirement. Think of it in terms of a honeymoon period, where leisurely optimism turns into boredom and even resentment for no apparent reasons.

To put this into a more concrete perspective, imagine for a moment if there were no personal or financial repercussions to following your natural likes and dislikes. What shape would your practice, marriage, friendships and personal health be in if you never had to do anything you didn’t feel like doing? Fact is, we can’t feel our way through life, yet many people find themselves forced to feel their way through retirement.

The harsh reality is, feelings aren’t always reliable or positive, and can therefore betray and deceive a client. Without a schedule, an identity outside the workplace, plans to interact with family and friends, as well as a commitment to mental and physical health, retirees can quickly find themselves fighting an unexpected battle -- a war between long-held retirement plans such as travel, volunteering or learning a second language and new, less motivating feelings such as “I don’t feel like it” and “Not right now.”

To further complicate things, society enables the notion that retirement is a selfish time, to do what you want, when you want. Add in the financial services industry, which tends to falsely project that retirees have 30 to 40 years to do whatever they want, and it’s easy to see why more retirees are dealing with addiction, divorce and even suicide (See my articles The Dark Side of Retirement and These Retirement Stats Paint A Troubling Picture).

The role that feelings can play in retirement is an important concept that doesn’t make it into enough retirement planning conversations, and can leave clients walking out of an advisor’s office blind to the realities that await them.  Too much of the work done prior to retirement relates to the outside and what everyone sees. A soon-to-be retiree could have a great house, respected career, family membership at the country club, and plenty of money saved for retirement, but once they enter retirement, they can find themselves vulnerable and feeling empty on the inside. Most of us have had feelings like these at some point in life, but these are misplaced and avoidable feelings … and are becoming more prevalent, especially in the early years of retirement.  That’s why it’s important for advisors to help clients understand and prepare for what may end up affecting them on the inside as much as the outside.

Overall, the idea that retirement is not a “feeling” gives new meaning to the term active retirement. Advisors, at the very least, need to make clients more aware of these issues and, ideally, help them create an action plan that continually fosters the right kind of feelings about retirement. If retirees want to create and sustain a happy and meaningful retirement, they can’t dwell on their past lives. They must find alternative means and activities in which to invest their time and resources. They need to work at building a framework of discipline and consistency. 

It also means advisors need to be conscious of their own feelings that surface during the retirement planning process.  It means starting conversations that we may not feel like having, as well as developing tools and resources to help clients better understand all aspects of retirement.