Encore Life – The Path to Well-Being

Creating an Encore Life includes successfully transitioning from a life with a traditional full-time career to a life after that traditional career, otherwise known as some form of retirement.  Retirement is one of the biggest transitions most people face. It can be done well, with good results, or it can be done poorly, with less than satisfactory results.  While most traditional retirement planning understandably has a financial orientation, truly creating a successful Encore Life requires a great deal of emphasis on the non-financial aspects of the retirement planning and transition process.

When our ancestors lived in caves, their brains were especially sensitive to threats–things that might have a negative impact on their lives.  Was that rustling grass a simple breeze or a lurking saber tooth tiger looking for dinner? Their recognition of threats and taking appropriate action were potentially life or death matters.  The ancestor who was constantly marveling at what a beautiful day it was probably didn’t survive long.  Clearly, being sensitive to threats was a very valuable personal longevity characteristic.  

Today, our brains have retained what is known as a “negativity bias,” meaning that we are still more sensitive to threats and potential negative impacts than we are to opportunities and things that might go right.  While dangers and opportunities still exist, most are not life threatening, and we would do well to try to counter some of our innate negativity bias.

The Positive Approach

The field of positive psychology is central to creating an Encore Life.  Positive psychology is the scientific study of optimal human functioning, well-being, and what makes for a meaningful and fulfilling life.

What does it take for people to flourish and thrive? 

Martin Seligman, widely regarded as one of the early founders of positive psychology, in his president’s address in 1998, challenged members of the American Psychological Association (APA) to focus on the positive aspects of life and well-being, in order to complement the APA’s predominate focus on disease and mental illness.

Seligman discovered there are elements of human well-being that can be scientifically tested and measured, taught and learned.  This is known as “applied positive psychology.”  He also identified several key elements that are essential to well-being and flourishing, and coined the acronym PERMA.  Let’s break down the key elements in PERMA

P – Positive Emotion

Positive emotion can be as simple as feeling satisfied and content with your life.  If you generally feel good about your life, you will likely look at the past with fondness, look at the present with joy and look to the future with hope.  Feelings of gratitude, optimism, resilience, and having a growth mindset are especially important here.  Positive emotions help us perform better, boost our physical health, strengthen our relationships, encourage us to take chances and to look toward the future with optimism and hope.  

So, do more of the things that make you happy and bring enjoyment into your daily routine.  Be especially aware of when this is happening in your life, and savor those moments.

E – Engagement

Engagement, also known as flow, has to do with being deeply connected with what you are doing, so much so that you are totally absorbed—to the point that you lose track of time and your surroundings.  Have you ever stopped what you were doing and thought, “Where has the time gone?”  You were probably just experiencing flow. Athletes often describe this as being “in the zone,” and it usually occurs when you are maximizing your strengths—what you are naturally good at—in a manner consistent with your values.

Seek out activities and hobbies that you really enjoy, where you can use your natural strengths to get in your zone.  Experiencing flow usually results in feeling refreshed, renewed and re-invigorated.  It does require some active involvement though; it is rarely experienced while passively watching TV.

R – Relationships

Humans are social beings. We crave love and attention, connection and contact, support and value, both physical and emotional, from family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. We increase our well-being as we increase our social network of relationships.  We benefit by being part of a community. Research suggests that nurturing positive relationships may have three times as much positive effect on our health as going to the gym!

Studies also indicate that 40% of Americans do not feel close to others at any given time. While obesity increases the odds of an early death by 20%, loneliness increases those odds by 45%.  Simply put – bonds with other people matter.  Research also shows that we judge the quality and dependability of our relationships.  Quality is much stronger than quantity. Not all relationships are positive in our lives, and those need to be evaluated.

It takes more than just “friending” someone for them to be a valuable part of your relationship network.  Work on developing deeper and more supportive relationships.  Be part of a community of people who share your values and beliefs.

M – Meaning

Meaning is closely related to believing that our own life makes sense, matters and has purpose.  We are generally at our best when we understand and are engaged in something bigger than ourselves.  This can include family, community, work, charity, spirituality, and any cause or goal that we feel strongly about.  Studies have shown that people who are part of a community that pursues common goals, with shared values and beliefs, and that makes a difference, are happier than people who aren’t. They feel needed and important. The Japanese call this ikigai – “your reason for being.”

When we retire or leave work, we also leave titles, offices, colleagues, friends, community, status and authority.  It is easy to feel a sense of loss, and specifically a loss of your identity.  It is especially important to have meaning and purpose as a person, separate from your work or career. This is critical for doctors, lawyers, executives, business owners and anyone else who has spent their life, up to this point, building and being identified by their career.

A – Accomplishment

Accomplishment is usually associated with achieving some goal or objective.  The very nature of trying to achieve something implies hope and a positive outlook for the future.  For many, if not most, people, the need for accomplishment has been met, at least in part, by career work.  If career work is reduced or discontinued, the need for accomplishment must be replaced by something else.  

Having ambition—an achievement orientation—provides structure, identity and purpose.  Indeed, accomplishing goals and objectives is essential to personal growth, a happy retirement, and is a defining characteristic of successful aging.  

Past accomplishments should make us feel more confident and optimistic about future attempts.  That’s why second careers, entrepreneurship, mentoring, teaching and volunteering are such popular options.  What other roles do you have in life (Grandparent?  Volunteer?  Student?), and what would you like to happen in those roles in the years ahead?

V – Vitality

While PERMA includes many references to health, several organizations more formally recognize the health component of well-being with the word “vitality.”  As we age, vitality takes on increasing importance in well-being, so the Encore Life includes it as PERMA-V.

Vitality has to do with managing stress, maintaining good nutrition, sleeping well, and staying physically active.  A healthy mind and a healthy body go hand in hand.  As we age, we need to spend more time and attention on maintaining our level of vitality. An intriguing website that discusses vitality in aging at length is www.bluezones.com.

PERMA-V in Practice

Not all of your well-being or happiness is up to you, but a great deal is.  Studies by Sonja Lyubomirsky of UC Riverside suggest that up to 50% of your well-being and life satisfaction is determined by your genetic makeup (from your parents and grandparents), and as little as 10% is determined by your environment/situation (which may or may not be controllable by you) and past experiences.  This leaves about 40% that is up to you and your behavior.  Your mind can be exercised, just as your body can.  You are in control.

Some studies have estimated the mental state of people in the U.S.  At any given time, about 14% of the general population is defined by diagnosis as “mentally ill” (life is especially difficult for these people); 12% are languishing (life is simply OK); the majority of the population, about 57%, are considered “moderately mentally  healthy” (life is generally good); and the remaining 17% are “flourishing” (life is really good).

The mission of the Encore Life is to offer tools and exercises to help people flourish – especially people who are transitioning into retirement.  That transition can be especially difficult for many people, but it can also be tremendously rewarding and satisfying for those that put some work into planning for it.

To learn more about well-being assessment tools or calculate your PERMA score, go to: https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/.  The assessments are free, but registration is required. Read on to learn more about life domains and goal setting.  You may also want to review the workbook questions and tools in the appendix—to get you started thinking about your next steps.

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