This post originally appeared April 3, 2013
Some folks may be feeling sorry for themselves because they have to be get creative to be able to retire at all. That makes as much sense as being upset because the caterpillar turned into a butterfly.
We spend our working years looking forward to not working—to long lazy stretches of lying on the warm sand at a sunny beach or relaxing in a favorite recliner. Reality is different though—100% leisure isn’t satisfying in the long haul. Yep. It’s a bad idea even if you can fund it.
Leisure is like salt–when you sprinkle a little on what you have cooking it brings out the flavor. But if you try to exist on a steady diet of just salt, your meals are going to be not only very unpleasant. They will be dangerous.
Too much salt can kill you. That’s true of leisure as well. Leisure steals a lot of important emotional nutrients from your diet if you resort to it too often. You don’t feel competent because you haven’t done anything to prove your mettle. You lose confidence in yourself because you aren’t doing anything significant. You start to ask yourself scary questions like “Why am I even here?” You lose your enthusiasm for life. There’s no zing in “doing nothing.”
Leisure means you expend little, if any, effort. It is not the same as play. Play is far more active and personal—and much more essential. According to researcher Dr. Stuart Brown, play helps our brains develop, makes our empathy bloom, helps us navigate complex social situations, and is essential to creativity and innovation. Play is for everyone, too—not just kids.
Most of us do need more play when we retire. Careers are built on the mantra of productivity and play is, by definition (at least by Dr. Brown), not productive. So we don’t value play. Stuart notes that the opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression. So yes, we do need to play when we retire. But play is active. When you play, you are doing something and having fun at it.
But we don’t need an exclusive diet of that either. Play is like sugar—it’s a treat. You need more of it than leisure—just like you use more sugar than salt in your cooking (unless you’re making dill pickles or sauerkraut).
But the real deal is flour. (In a gluten-free environment, it’s just not wheat flour. And in a healthy environment, whole grain.) You use flour—lots of it–in bread and pasta. You use it for gravy and coating the chicken you are going to bake or—gasp!—fry. And, of course, there’s flour in cookies, cakes, and pastries. In my kitchen analogy, the piece we need the most of, the “flour”, is work. To be a healthy version (“whole grain”) it needs to be work you love.
We need work, just like we need grains in our diets. But just like whole grain flour is good for you and bleached white flour is not, meaningful unpaid work is better for you than anything you do for money that you don’t have your heart in. The work you need when you retire should be more wholesome and more enriching—but it should be there.
If you can’t afford the leisure-centered version of retirement, rejoice. You didn’t need all that leisure. You need a chance to play and a chance to do meaningful work along with that leisure. With some effort and reflection, you might be able get both of those things in work you continue to do for pay. If that’s not possible, you can still fit them into your day with a bit of ingenuity.
Human beings are not made to sit around the swimming pool sipping mojitos day after day. That kind of experience is only fun as an interlude–a break between more emotionally, mentally, and physically engaging activities. A little is pleasant. A lot is lethal. You really can die from sitting around
Learn to play. Find good work. Sprinkle in some leisure every once in a while. You’ll be miles ahead of the folks who packed the car and moved to Easy Street because they could afford to stop working.