Why I’m researching how people find meaning in retirement

by | Retirement

In this edition I’d like to tell you a bit about my research; with my viva in the next few days, I’m immersed in the data, getting myself ready to answer whatever questions are asked.

The story of our lives is interesting and important. I want to understand the back story, to find out what has driven someone to make their life choices and how they have dealt with disappointments and setbacks. So today I want to set a bit of the background to my working towards my doctorate.   

At 62 I started my doctoral studies. Not bad for someone who left school at 15! I remain curious and interested in learning. Gaining my first degree from the Open University in 1988, aged 31, and then gaining an MSc in occupational psychology and later a MBA. Happy to be at the age now where I’m studying and researching for a depth of understanding rather than to do the minimum to pass to aid my career. The topic is interesting to me, and hopefully to everyone as we will all age.

Back in July 2019 I had my interview for my doctorate. At this point I was planning on research into unretirement – when people return to work after retiring, or possibly a review of retirement preparation. I’d submitted my application and then went for my interview.

The following day I was leaving for a Vision Quest – based on Rites of Passage where you take time out to reflect on your life and any question you may have. This involved 4 days of preparation, followed by 4 days and 4 nights on a solo quest, with no tent, just a tarp for shelter, no technology, and no food. I didn’t think it was possible to go even 4 hours without food, but I did the 4 days solo, and came back with a clear view on what was important to me. A Vision Quest ends with 2 days of guided return before incorporation back into our lives.

I became clear that what interested me was to explore how people find meaning in life after full time work. I was interested in the transition – how we move on from one stage of life to the next. And how can we successfully manage this.

For me there is a strong link between personality and meaning. Are there some personality characteristics that mean someone will seek a deeper understanding of who they are and their life purpose?

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My doctorate comprises 2 main elements. The first is a Systematic Literature Review (SLR).

I needed to get a clear understanding of the body of research and confirm my research direction. I read widely around retirement and realised I was more interested in the adjustment than the initial transition. I read even deeper and realised that the majority of academic studies covered health and finances, and very little attention was paid to the psychological factors, so my research question became clear.

Reviewing all academic papers in a 20-year period I found 12,613 papers to review, and as I got clearer on criteria, and checked on the research content, I gradually narrowed it down to a final list of 17. I then went deep to fully understand what these factors were. It was a hard, long, slow, and frustrating process. This was taking me well outside my comfort zone, I hadn’t done research since for my MSc in 1991 and at times I felt like giving up, but I continued, one academic paper at a time.

One interesting discovery was of the Proactive Personality, people who recognise opportunities, take initiative, and persevere. These characteristics serve you well in your career and also into retirement.

The second part of my thesis was my independent study, looking into how people have found meaning in life after full time work.

A meaningful life is one that has a sense of purpose and is one that matters or possesses significance. Once people retire there is a loss of status from the job, and also the loss of the meaning and purpose that has been gained from their work.

From the SLR I found that most research was based on quantitative research, rather than through qualitative data which includes talking with people. Therefore, for my original research I took this qualitative approach and went deep with a small number of people. I looked for themes, but most importantly wanted to learn about the individual story of the people I interviewed.

There was more academic reading, looking into research on meaning, looking more into retirement, following paths that interested me such as how contact with nature is increasingly being recognized as contributing to humans’ mental and physical health but most research on nature connection is mainly focused on young people, perhaps this is an area for me to research next?

Whilst survey data is helpful, small pieces of evidence can go missing. Many of the people I interviewed had a proactive personality. And it will be interesting to see if we can help people to develop this personality characteristic. They were all curious, and open. Traits that serve us well through life.

In time I’ll be publishing my research and will also aim to share it more widely. For now, I need to defend my research and demonstrate my suitability to be called Dr Taylor. So back to my preparation – wish me luck for Thursday afternoon, and I look forward to sharing more with you next time.

Denise Taylor is a Chartered Psychologist and Vision Quest Guide. Regularly featured in the media, she is the author of 8 books including Find Work at 50+ and How to get a Job in a Recession.   

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Let’s start to get to know each other.

I’d love to send you a series of articles to get you thinking of your wider life. You will also receive my mid-week 50+ update and the Amazing People newsletter.
Denise Taylor

Chief Inspiration Officer, The 50 Plus Coach.