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The average retiree has 7800 days to fill. Here’s how to find your passion


Linda Green is busier than she’s ever been, and she has no plans to slow down – quite literally. The 58-year-old retiree is a member of Old Girls on the Road, a Gold Coast-based group of female car collectors and “cruisers” – people who take their cars out for spins together, and meet up over coffee. She’s also a race car driver.

“It’s flying down the straight, hitting the brakes to get around the corner – it’s just adrenalin,” she says. “I’ve got a great team. It makes you know that you’re alive.”

For Green, the cars and her racing are essential outlets. She retired from her job at Suncorp last year to care for her mother who has severe dementia. The driving is a respite and a way to connect with like-minded people. Having a passion or sense of purpose is one of the biggest drivers of mental wellbeing, say psychologists and experts, but the transition from full-time work into a lifestyle with few – if any  external commitments, can easily leave people feeling rudderless. Gareth Furber, a psychologist and mental health expert at Flinders University, says the risk for people leaving the workforce is that they no longer have the tasks, structure, stimulation and environment that kept them mentally engaged and on track. They include meaningful activities, or those that provide a sense of satisfaction or joy, such as creating art, listening to music or reading a good book. Thinking about your goals and plans and doing things to help you progress towards them is the second, while healthy routines such as sleeping and eating well is the third. Social connections, such as having meaningful conversations and socialising with friends is the fourth, and the fifth is healthy thinking, or treating yourself with respect in your thoughts and having a realistic perspective. But the transition period can untether people from the “big five”, says Furber.

“If a lot of those activities were attached to your work, then these good habits … may have fallen away. The challenge is to restore them in a different way.

Cultivate your passions

Someone who retires at 67 and lives to 87 has 7300 days to fill. The trick is finding activities and connections that have direction, and are enjoyable. In other words: your passions. Paul O’Keefe is a psychologist and researcher at the University of Exeter who has spent years studying the links between passions, mindset and motivation. A study he published in 2018 found that passions are pursuits and interests that can be cultivated rather than something innate to be uncovered.

“O’Keefe says retirees seeking to cultivate post-work passions should aim to have a “growth mindset”.

“They’re thinking about what they could become interested in and in what directions could they grow,” he says. “Could they get interested in literature? They’ve never really gotten into the classics, but maybe they could get into that? They were never the outdoorsy type, but hell, why not? Their friends have invited them on a hike.”

On the other hand, somebody with a fixed mindset would be thinking: “I already know what my interests are, so what’s the point? Why would I make the effort to engage in something that I already know won’t be of interest to me?”

Additionally, people with fixed mindsets may have lower resilience if they encounter difficulties in pursuing their passions. “If you believe interests are revealed, and pursuing them should be easy, then that can make things hard.”

The concern is that you might brush up against a rich vein, but lack the ability to persevere with it until it becomes something truly meaningful.

Questions to ask yourself

To build a growth mindset, you have to begin by understanding what engages you, says O’Keefe. One way to do this is by looking back at your life and your experiences, and thinking about the areas where you have developed interests that perhaps you hadn’t expected. Furber of Flinders University says another way to look at it is to take your current habits and figure out what’s driving you to maintain them.

“Then you take that map of your values, needs and preferences and use that as a lens over which to look at other activities,” he says. “What is another setting where you may achieve the same goal?”

Furber suggests people take something called the VIA character survey to help identify their strengths.

“The survey takes about 20 minutes, and you’ll get your top five character strengths. Any activity that you can find that builds on those character strengths will likely be quite rewarding to you,” he says.

“One of my character strengths is creativity, so any time I get a chance to do some art or interact with others’ creativity … that’s really rewarding to me. That’s really enjoyable.”

Furber says there’s a good chance that once you’ve uncovered your top five strengths, you’ll look back on your career and realise the reason you were so good at certain areas, and enjoyed them so much, was because they were resonating with a strength.

“Then you ask yourself, ‘What would it look like to activate that character strength now?’”

For Green, a passion for driving has led to her doing more upper body training to stay fit, and has also fed into a love of fashion because she and her friends dress up in vintage outfits for their outings. Last week, she and her friends were at the Cooly Rocks On festival on the Gold Coast, and she took her Ford Falcon 1964 XM ute. Green says she is “without a doubt” busier than when she was working full-time.
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