Exploring Retirement

Welcome to the May 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 what gives our lives a sense of meaning. This is an important topic to consider in the context of retirement as research has shown that many people experience a reduction in the experience of meaning in their lives, as they grow older. Why is this and what can be done about it?

    Churchill Fellows Reception at Buckingham Palace.

    2015 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Sir Winston Churchill. The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust was set up 1965, as Sir Winston's living legacy. Since then, over 5000 British citizens have been awarded Fellowships, from over 100,000 applicants, to travel overseas to study areas of topical and personal interest. The knowledge and innovative ideas they bring back are shared, for the benefit of their profession and the wider community.

    I was awarded my Churchill Fellowship in 2007, to study "The Third Age - Challenge and Opportunities" in the United States. Over a four week period I visited nine states and met with representatives from over thirty organisations. As I said in my application, I wanted to identify new social structures "for those who want to do something, not have something done for them".

    Royal Reception

    In this anniversary year, the Trust's Patron, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, decided to celebrate the life of Sir Winston and the achievements of the Trust set up in his memory, by hosting a Reception for Churchill Fellows at Buckingham Palace. On the evening of the 18 March, over 300 Fellows from all over the UK attended this glittering event and were introduced to The Queen. Here is a photo from the evening, where I am shaking hands with Her Majesty!

    After the official handshake, the Queen, together with His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh and other members of the Royal Family, mingled with their guests in a very informal and relaxed manner. Representatives from The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust in Australia, and The Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States also attended the Reception.

    To mark its half century, The Trust has just awarded a record number of 150 Travelling Fellowships - investing £1.3m in British citizens. The Fellows will travel to 58 countries between them, across six continents, where they will carry out a wide range of projects. The average length of a Fellowship is 6 weeks.The categories for 2015-16 are now available on the web site (www.wcmt.org.uk). There is always an "open" category, so if you have an idea, but it doesn't fit exactly, you can still apply!

    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

    Meaning and Purpose

    Professor Carol Ryff, Director of MIDUS (the Mid-Life Study in the US), defines purpose in life as:

    Some early results from the MIDUS Study are shown below:

    Purpose in life - menMales

    This set of graphs shows how the six factors that Professor Ryff believes constitute psychological well-being vary with age. Note that the drop in both personal growth and purpose in life, begins for many men in their forties. Thus it cannot be attributed solely to the retirement transition, although it may be a contributing factor. It would appear that many men begin to question the meaning or purpose of their life while they are still actively engaged in their career.

    Purpose in life - womenFemales

    While the drop in personal growth is not so steep for ladies, the drop in purpose in life is even steeper than for men. It is tempting to attribute this steep decline to the "empty nest" syndrome, as women tend to invest more heavily than men in child rearing and home building and the decline begins about the time most children will have begun to develop their independence and leave home..

    It is important to make clear that these results show the trends in a population as a whole and may not apply to a particular individual. Note that the sense of autonomy (control over our own lives) and personal growth both improve with age, yet these graphs show quite clearly that many people in later life struggle to find a sense of purpose.

    I have recently been re-reading The Virtues of Aging, by former American President Jimmy Carter. On leaving office he not only had to cope with the loss of his presidential role but also, in the interim, his previously flourishing business had accumulated more than a million dollars in debt! He and his wife had to quite literally start all over again. Here is what he had to say about what he learned from this experience -

    "I have learned that even failures force us to stretch our hearts and minds, and the successes more than compensate for the losses. This premise is particularly applicable to those of us who have reached retirement age. It is a time when we can, by default, live a passive and inactive life. But there is a wonderful, if riskier, alternative. We can take advantage of our newfound freedom and embark on new and exciting adventures. We now have time to fulfil some earlier ambitions. If we make a mistake, there are plenty of fallbacks. We need not be too cautious".

    The importance of a sense of meaning and purpose

    It turns out that purpose is, on many counts, a good thing to have. "It's a very robust predictor of health and wellness in old age," says Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago. She and her colleagues have been tracking two cohorts of older people living independently in greater Chicago, assessing them regularly on a variety of physical, psychological and cognitive measures. The subjects also agreed to donate their brains after their deaths.

    Following almost 1,000 people (age 80, on average) for up to seven years, Dr. Boyle's team found that the ones with high purpose scores were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer's than those with low scores; they were also less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor. "It also slowed the rate of cognitive decline by about 30 percent, which is a lot," Dr. Boyle added.

    In a subset of 246 people who died, autopsies found that many of the purposeful subjects also showed the distinctive markers of Alzheimer's. "But even for people developing the plaques and tangles in their brains, having purpose in life allows you to tolerate them and still maintain your cognition," Dr. Boyle said.

    New research published in Psychological Science shows that at any age, having a sense of purpose could also add years to your life. Dr Nicholas Hill of Carleton University in Canada examined data from the MIDUS longitudinal study of health and wellbeing conducted in the US amongst adults between the ages of 20 and 75. Those who died, in all age groups, scored significantly lower on purpose-in-life scales. The researchers looked at whether purpose had less effect after retirement, when "you're starting to lose those structures you had, a natural way to organize your daily life," according to Dr. Hill. Somewhat to his surprise, work status didn't matter. In fact, both the Rush and the Carleton teams controlled for a host of other factors known to correlate with well-being, including depression, social relationships, chronic medical conditions/ disability and demographic differences. They report that purpose in life, all by itself, appears to have a potent ability to improve and extend lives.

    Developing your sense of meaning and purpose

    The UK National Health Service website gives five practical suggestions to help you add a sense of purpose to your life. They are :
    1. Connect with others
    2. Become more active
    3. Learn new skills
    4. Be more mindful of the world around you
    5. Give your time and resources to help others in need

    "We can make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give." - Winston Churchill

    Featured Activity: Volunteer Manager with Raleigh International

    If you are looking for a fresh challenge to give your life some meaning and purpose, how about a spot of international volunteering? Too old? Think again!

    Raleigh International run overseas expeditions throughout the year in Borneo, Costa Rica & Nicaragua and Tanzania. Volunteers (aged 17-24) work on community and environmental projects as well as undertaking a tough adventure challenge, and are supported by volunteer managers (aged 25-75). Expeditions are 5, 7 or 10 weeks for venturers and 8 or 13 weeks for volunteer managers. Raleigh's vision is to drive sustainable development through inspiring young people and communities to work together. Without the support of volunteer manager teams they would not be able to achieve this. The volunteer manager roles fall into different categories. Those based in the permanent country headquarters, or fieldbase, help ensure the smooth running of the expedition from behind the scenes. Project managers support young volunteers on the project sites and act as a point of contact with the community and with project partners. All roles require leadership, good communication and problem solving skills, coupled with the passion and desire to drive positive change. Raleigh encourage volunteer managers to take on new challenges. Whatever role you are undertaking, full training is provided to build upon your existing skills, knowledge and experience. To learn more about Raleigh International, click here

    In this short video Zoe Young, describes her role as a project manager with Raleigh Borneo.

    Retirement: My Way

    Beverly Bryans, a retired nurse talks about her work supporting a children's orphanage in Peru. Beverly visits the orphanage every year and on her return helps raise funds to allow them to continue to care for the children.

    To read Beverly's article, click here.

    To send us your story for publication, contact editor@exploringretirement.co.uk.


    As Spring gathers strength, the garden is beginning to bloom again. Many thanks to Henrietta Price for this colourful photo.

    The UK Elections - Michael McSorley

    Michael considers the unpredictable nature of the upcoming General Election in the UK, when no single party is likely to win an overall majority. He makes the case for voters in Northern Ireland to look at the big picture and vote for parties concerned with national issues like the economy and the National Health Service. To read Michael's article, click here

    Jeanette Lewis

    Jeanette considers the importance of achievements in providing a sense of purpose to our lives in retirement. To read Jeanette's article, click here.


    Reflections is a new addition to Exploring Retirement. It is intended to showcase short pieces of poetry or prose that reflect on our life experience. This month features a poem by my late friend and colleague, Phil Clarke. I knew Phil had written an unpublished novel but I only recently discovered that he sometimes wrote poetry too. Here Phil reflects on the experience of being alone with nature. As he says "to be alone is not always to be lonely". I'm grateful to Phil's wife, Noelle for allowing me to publish Phil's poetry and to Jeanette for sending me the photo of a winter sunset at Lake Huron that I have selected to accompany the poem. To read "Alone", click here.