Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Nov 11, 2019

Too Neurotic to Retire?

by Isabelle Hansson
photo of a worried middle aged man at computer

Retirement is thought to be the vacation of our lifetime. After a long working life, it is time to focus on ourselves, relax, and enjoy the good things in life. Retirement from work is an opportunity to devote time to pleasurable and interesting activities rather than meeting the demands of work.

But retirement can also be challenging in many ways. Leaving the work force means substantial changes in everyday life. The transition from working life to retirement requires adjustments to new roles and expectations. In addition, our opportunities to enjoy life in retirement may be constrained by factors such as declining health, family care needs, and lowered income.

Research suggests that most people adjust well to retirement. In fact, for the majority, retirement seems to have a limited impact on well-being. If anything, we see positive trends suggesting that, on average, people are more satisfied with their lives after retirement. But how about the rest? What about those of us who tend to worry about things?

My colleagues and I at the University of Gothenburg studied the role of personality in adapting to retirement. Our study was based on a nationally representative sample of 796 Swedish adults as they transitioned into retirement. We followed these participants over a 4-year period, contacting them once every year to complete a survey that included questions about their overall health and well-being.

The results of the study showed that retired people who scored higher on the personality dimension of neuroticism—those who frequently experience anxiety and other negative emotions—reported lower self-esteem, less control, poorer social relationships, worse health, and lower overall cognitive functioning than those who scored lower in neuroticism. They were also less satisfied with their financial situation. In addition, people higher in neuroticism reported more negative changes across the transition period. Higher neuroticism was associated with decreases in self-esteem, personal control, social support, physical health, and overall cognitive functioning after retirement. How do we understand these results?

Numerous studies show that people who are higher in neuroticism tend to be worse off in many aspects of life. For example, high neuroticism is associated with lower satisfaction with life. Neuroticism involves the tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, and depression. Individuals who score high in neuroticism are also more emotionally unstable in terms of having frequent mood swings, high irritability, and stronger reactions to stress. The finding that people higher in neuroticism on average report lower satisfaction with various aspects of their lives is therefore not very surprising. They may simply view and evaluate their life less favorably. But how do we explain the negative changes over time? Isn’t it enough to feel bad about our current conditions? Why do they also worry about future outcomes?

People higher in neuroticism seem to be more vulnerable in the transition process in the sense that they have more difficulties adjusting to the life changes associated with retirement. This might be because people higher in neuroticism have more problems preparing for and structuring their post-retirement life. People who are less emotionally stable may need more structure and continuity in central aspects of daily life. Neuroticism can therefore put people at risk for poorer adjustment in retirement.

For Further Reading

Hansson, I., Henning, G., Buratti, S., Lindwall, M., Kivi, M., Johansson, B., & Berg, A. I. (2019). The role of personality in retirement adjustment: Longitudinal evidence for the effects on life satisfaction. Journal of Personality. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12516

Dr. Isabelle Hansson is a researcher at the Department of Psychology and Centre for ageing and health (AgeCap), University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden. Her research focuses on psychological adaptation in the transition from work to retirement.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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