Lonely or alone?

Are you lonely tonight? Or are you alone? The difference is huge.

As Manfred Kets de Vries, the noted psychologist and leadership expert explains: being alone is solitude; feeling alone is loneliness.

In most cases, solitude is voluntary. We seek solitude from time to time to reflect on our lives, to solve problems, to get in touch with what matters to us. Writers and other artists need time alone to think, to plan, to create. So do many scientists and knowledge workers. The ability to be happy when alone is seen as a sign of good mental health.

Loneliness, on the other hand, is involuntary. It creeps up on you and is often accompanied by depression, a feeling of helplessness and isolation. It’s an unhealthy state that often afflicts new retirees who have given no thought to how they will fill the space work previously occupied.

Fortunately, you can avoid or chase away loneliness. If you are on the verge of retirement, start researching activities you enjoy now. If you are in retirement, get out, mix with people and seek activities that connect you to the outside world. You’ll be amazed how quickly your loneliness reduces when you are busy and connected.

The word retire derives from the French word retirer, which translates to ‘pull or draw (something) back’. Over the centuries, its English meaning has evolved and today includes: to go to bed or rest; to stop working because you have reached a particular age; to withdraw from something. Unfortunately, for some, retirement is comparable to withdrawal from life and therefore a diminished state.

The reason for associating retirement with withdrawal likely stems from the bygone era when most work was physical. Back then, loss of physical strength and the frailty that comes with age generally dictated the time to retire from work and an active life. When laws changed and set the retirement age at age 65, most of the workforce still had physical labour jobs and relatively few workers lived to celebrate their 65th birthday. If they did, their retirement years were short.

Today, manual labour has given way to knowledge and service industry workers. And thanks to medical advances, life expectancy has risen considerably. We can now choose when to leave the workforce — at age 65, or some other age. Whatever the choice, most of us can expect to live decades after retirement. We’re healthier, better educated and it’s absurd to equate departure from the workforce with withdrawal from life.

It’s quite the opposite. For those who’ve planned it, retirement is the beginning of a new and exciting phase of life. One blessed with time to broaden our world — travel, go back to school, spend more time with family and friends — or pursue a passion that we reluctantly abandoned for economic or family reasons.

By contrast, loneliness is often the price of ignoring quality-of-life issues before and during retirement. We have all met people who scorn small talk, who avoid eye contact when entering an elevator and instead stare at the floor or ceiling. While they may be contemplating Einstein’s theory of relativity, it’s more likely they don’t know how to or are afraid to engage with others. These are the souls who, according to Professor Kets de Vries, are in a lonely state that “signals an inability to reach out … and suggests underdeveloped social skills.”

Those who have used work to suppress their loneliness have difficulty filling their time when they retire. If they’re in a relationship, they may expect their partner to fill the void. This sudden dependence can be overwhelming and many partners end up reminding them: “Darling, I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch.”

Rest assured it is never too late to change. It is possible to learn social skills at any stage of life, including post-retirement. Success hinges on gaining self awareness and empathy for others, traits often in short supply in workaholics. Guidance from a loved one, therapy and better-late-than-never retirement planning are all options.

It’s been reported that those nearing the end of their life’s journey often say their regret for the things they have done pales in comparison to their regret for the things they did not do.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Jacob Wackerhausen

Article courtesy of Sun Life Financial. Check out My Retirement Café to help you plan for and live a happy retirement. On it you will find up-to-date information on a range of topics, both financial – saving for retirement, managing your money during retirement, taxation – and quality of retirement life topics – aging, mental and physical health, working after retirement, relationships – to name just a few.