Retirement is the result of decades of work, and many Americans count down the days until they can retire and spend their time doing the things they’ve always wanted to do. But retirement isn’t always the bed of roses retirees dream of. In fact, the American Institute of Stress ranks retirement as number 10 among the 43 most stressful life events.

For some people, retirement marks the beginning of a decline in health and negative changes in self-identity. Losing daily contact with co-workers and the sense of purpose and meaning that comes with working can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. This seclusion puts seniors at a higher risk for substance abuse and substance use disorders.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, isolation and loneliness can interfere with a person’s ability to regulate emotions, and it can lead to distorted self-perception. Isolation can make it more difficult to control habits and behaviors. Isolation and loneliness often lead to self-destructive habits, including substance abuse, an unhealthy diet and poor sleep habits.

It’s critical to combat isolation and loneliness in retirement for health, happiness and well-being.

Four Key Elements of an Enjoyable Retirement

A 40-year study of aging issues by Harvard Medical School has led researchers to identify four key factors that make retirement enjoyable and rewarding.

  1. A new social network: When you retire from a job, you also retire from daily interactions with colleagues and friends, and this can lead to loneliness. Establishing a new social network is essential to combat isolation in retirement and increase your happiness and enjoyment in life. One of the best ways to develop a new social network is to get involved in the community through hobbies, volunteering and other activities.
  2. Hobbies: Engaging in hobbies is important to combat isolation and loneliness in retirement. Hobbies improve your life satisfaction and help you establish new friendships. Activities like golfing, ballroom dancing, art making and exercise classes open the door to new relationships and keep retirees active and engaged in the community.
  3. Creativity: Nurturing creativity has been shown to improve brain health, social functioning, self-awareness, and overall life satisfaction. Taking up painting, sewing, photography, writing, gardening, music, dance or any of the other endless possibilities for creative expression can go a long way to combat isolation and loneliness. Nurturing your creativity improves your mood, increases self-esteem and helps you develop a new social network.
  4. Learning: Ongoing learning in retirement keeps your brain healthy and active, and it can help to stave off memory loss, depression and dementia. It also provides opportunities for meeting new people. Consider taking a language course, music lessons, or classes that interest you at the local university or community college.

Retirement is a Process

Retirement, according to the Harvard study, is less an event and more a process. It’s a major life transition that brings about environmental changes that affect health behaviors, social interactions and identity. Filling your time with old and new activities that you enjoy and actively pursuing a new social network will promote good health and a higher quality of life as well as dramatically reduce your risk of developing a substance use disorder down the road.