Exploring Retirement

Welcome to the March 2015 edition of Exploring Retirement. Each month we feature articles on well-being in retirement. Martin Seligman, the founder of the Positive Psychology movement, in his book "Flourish", set out what he considers the necessary "elements" for a flourishing life. He suggests the acronym PERMA, which stands for -

  • Positive emotions
  • Engagement
  • Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement
  • We have begun considering each element in turn, in the context of retirement. This month we are looking at engagement. Our featured retirement activity is an Australian initiative called Sharing Zones, which engages a whole community to help older people "age in place".

    Retirement: My Way features a retired school teacher who is certainly fully engaged with life! Do write and let us know what you think. E-mail your thoughts to editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

    Writing team

    We have three regular contributors on our writing team. Here they are with a brief note explaining their principal areas of interest:

    John Copelton, EditorDr John Copelton - well-being in retirementMichael McSorley, contributorMichael McSorley - lively comment on sport and cultureJeannette Lewis, contributorJeannette Lewis - inspiring ideas on retirement living

    Engagement in Retirement

    According to Professor Martin Seligman, the second element of a flourishing life comes when we are engaged in activities which demand our full attention. This phenomenon has been studied for many years by Professor Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high). Professor Csikszentmihalyi called this experience "flow" because, when we are engaged in this way, time appears to flow past without us being aware of it's passage.

    It is important to note that when we are in flow, we do not experience any positive emotions, because to experience happiness we must be able to focus on our inner state and that would take away attention from the task at hand. Only after the task is completed do we have the leisure to look back on what has happened and then we can experience both satisfaction and a sense of achievement. It is in retrospect that we experience a heightened sense of well-being.

    Professor Csikszentmihalyi developed the "experience sampling" method. He used a small electronic bleeper which was set to go off at various times throughout the day, to remind volunteers to fill out a diary recording what they were doing at that time. His findings from many thousands of hours of data are summarised in the diagram on the right.

    The level of challenge involved in the activity is displayed on the vertical axis while the level of skill employed in meeting the challenge is displayed on the horizontal axis. The psychological state of the participants is displayed in red. Activities which involve a low level of both challenge and skill result in boredom and apathy. Activities which are very challenging and demand a high level of skill for their successful completion leave participants feeling aroused and masterful. "Flow" tends to occur when challenge and skill are well matched so that the participant is fully engaged in the activity. It is important to note that flow does not occur at all at low levels of challenge and skill. To experience flow, the levels of challenge and skill have to be at least moderately high.

    John Copelton, Editor

    Professor Csikszentmihalyi found that the most common experience of flow in everyday life occurred when people were involved in a sport or hobby. Since the experience of flow is associated with heightened enjoyment, you might think that we would actively seek out these experiences. However Professor Csikszentmihalyi found that adults spend up to four times more of their free time watching TV than they do in active pursuits. To understand what is going on here Professor Csikszentmihalyi suggests that flow producing activities require an initial investment of attention before they begin to be enjoyable. Also you have to be able to invest a certain amount of energy to enjoy more complex activities. It is easier, especially if we are feeling tired, to just sit down and turn on the TV. Passive activities are relaxing while challenging activities can border on the stressful. Professor Csikszentmihalyi points out that as with most things in life it is a question of balance. There is nothing wrong with passive leisure as such, it only becomes a problem when a person uses it as their principal strategy for filling their free time. Professor Csikszentmihalyi suggests that to make the best use of free time, one needs to devote as much attention to it as one did to one's job!

    In the course of an average day, about one-third of the time people will say that they do what they do because they wanted to do it, one-third because they had to do it, and the last third because they had nothing better to do. This last state is associated with feeling listless and apathetic. The popular assumption is that no skills are involved in enjoying free time, and that anybody can do it. Yet the evidence suggests the opposite: free time is more difficult to enjoy than work! This serves to explain why some people find retirement unsatisfying, if their activities in retirement provide insufficient challenge and they have little opportunity to use their skills.

    Reference - Finding Flow:The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi

    Attaining flow in retirement

    Here are a number of general guidelines to help you achieve flow:

    Let me illustrate the guidelines from my own experience of returning to tennis after a fifty year absence! Fundamentally I enjoy the game, the physical exhilaration and the chance to make new friends. It can be hard to push myself to go to the courts on a frosty morning but I know I will be glad afterwards. My low level of skill after such a long absence is annoying but I tell myself can only get better. To develop my skills I have started arriving at the court 30 minutes early with a dozen tennis balls, so I can practice my shots and, in particular, my serve. When my opponent arrives we always play singles, which requires me to be fully focussed throughout. Progress has been slow but I have started to win a few games. One of these days I may even win a set! That's a sufficiently challenging goal for the moment and it serves to keep me motivated.

    Featured Activity: Sharing Zones

    Continuing the theme of engagement in retirement, our featured activity this month is Sharing Zones, an initiative intended to encourage "ageing in place" that originated in Australia. A Sharing Zone is a new kind of neighbourhood, where ageing in place is supported by local residents who feel connected though shared interests and are encouraged to offer help to one another. A Sharing Zone neighbourhood includes volunteers who co-ordinate events and match needs with givers, paid carers willing to carry out everyday tasks in a relational way (like shopping or cleaning) and a number of incentives (like reduction in council tax for those who share).

    The first Sharing Zone was established in Adelaide in 2011, following feedback from older people who felt isolated, and younger people who felt disconnected to the neighbourhood. A Set-up Team mapped needs, found volunteers and paid local carers, established arrangements on benefits (like tax reductions) and organised events. The Set-up Team spent several months going door-to- door, hosting social activities and making connections between people in the neighbourhood using a "Would You Like To...?" App that encouraged locals to add things they were already doing and things they would like to do to a database. People were then matched to others who would like to share in the same activity. Unlike set piece community events, which happen at a particular time and place, "Would You Like To...?" enabled people to do exactly what they wanted, when, where and with whom they chose. As a result local residents took over two-thirds of caring tasks previously delivered by the state and neighbourliness improved.

    The Sharing Zone offers help with the everyday stuff such as house work, meals, transport, home maintenance and personal care. There are three roles that make up a Local Team: the Handyperson who helps with practical jobs big and small; the Carer who lives locally, which saves having to pay for travel time and the Connector who takes over running the "Would You Like To...?"App.

    Based on The Set-up Teams co-design work, 66% of the tasks that would previously have required paid agency staff, are done by local residents. These are tasks like domestic assistance, meal prep, and home maintenance. The other 44% of tasks require trained carers. By designing out administration, Sharing Zones have shown that it's possible to deliver double the number of hours of care for the same cost. By organising care by neighbourhood, it's possible to create efficiencies, and design in more time for building relationships.

    It is interesting to compare this Australian model with the US Beacon Hill Village initiative we described in the December 2013 issue of Exploring Retirement.

    Retirement: My Way

    Retirement: My Way is a recent addition to our magazine format. Each month we feature individuals who are active in "retirement" and who have written to tell us about their experiences. We hope you will enjoy this new feature and that some of you will want to share your own experience of "engagement" in retirement. To send us your story for publication, contact editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.

    This month Jim Mulligan talks about his "career" since leaving teaching. Jim mentions "luck" but I think "planned happenstance" might be a better description! He is certainly open to new experiences. See what you think. To read Jim's article, click here.


    Last day at work - Michael McSorley

    Michael took this delightful picture of a robin in the garden, as winter loosens its grip of the UK and longer days return. Michael is in reflective mood for this issue. Here he writes about leaving work for the last time, an emotional experience that I am sure many of our readers will respond to. To read how he felt on his last day, click here

    Achieving "Flow" in Retirement - Jeanette Lewis

    Jeanette views "flow" as a metaphor for finding your route to engagement in retirement. She provides a personal example of finding flow based on the creation of her own retirement blog, work that simultaneously offered both a challenge and the opportunity to use the skills developed over a lifetime. To read Jeanette's article click here..