Not All Retirement Stress is Bad – So, Throw Some Piranhas in the Fish Tank

Almost all of us want to reduce the stress in our lives as we enter retirement. After decades of screaming kids, performance reviews, road rage and social pressure, we are finally ready to relax and take it easy a bit.

On the one hand, this is a perfectly natural desire. After all, stress is bad, right? Why wouldn’t we want to live stress-free lives in retirement?

The reality, as I have discovered by talking with 100s of recent and not-so-recent retirees is somewhat different. Not only can some forms of stress have positive impacts on our lives, but, pursuing the goal of “reducing stress” can actually leave us feeling empty, out-of-shape and poor.

To illustrate my point, I’d like to tell you a story about Piranhas… yes, the little monsters that live in rivers in the Amazon and can strip a cow to the bone in about 30 minutes.

Let’s Throw Some Piranhas Into the Retirement Fish Tank

My son once told me a story about a man who was having trouble keeping his collection of goldfish happy and healthy.

As the story goes, a man walks into a pet store and tells the manager that his fish are dying at a rate of about one a week. They are also lethargic, overweight and they even look depressed. What does a depressed goldfish look like, you ask? We’ll probably never know!

In any case, the pet store manager recommends that the goldfish owner add a piranha to the fish tank to get the goldfish moving again. The goldfish owner is skeptical, but, short on other ideas, he decides to give it a try.

One week later, his fish have come back to life. They are swimming normally, eating properly and swimming together in groups. They even look happier.

Now, let’s ignore the fact that the goldfish owner probably lost a few fish to the hungry piranha and focus on the larger point:

Sometimes, boredom and a lack of purpose are a greater risk to our health and happiness than stress.

This is true at every stage of our lives, but, it is especially true during our retirement years when our bodies are already feeling the effects of the aging process.

So, does this mean that we should intentionally add stress to our lives in retirement? Yes and no. Yes, we should add stress to our lives, but, we should make sure that it is the kind of “good stress” that our bodies and brains will respond to positively.

Not All Stress is Created Equal – Exploring “Good Stress” vs. “Bad Stress” in Retirement

Psychologists recognize that not all stress is created equal. “Bad stress” (distress) is unpleasant, anxiety-inducing and can lead to physical and mental problems. “Good stress” (eustress) is motivating, exciting and can improve performance and our sense of purpose.

So, what does this distinction mean for retirees? How can we use this information to find happiness in the short-term without sacrificing satisfaction in the long term?

For starters, we can start to classify the stressors in our life as either causes of distress or eustress. Then, we can work to actively reduce the causes of distress in our lives while increasing the causes of eustress.

Here are a few examples of negative stressors:

  • Losing your partner or a close family member
  • Getting a divorce
  • Having strained relationships with your friends or family
  • Being injured or getting a serious illness
  • Worrying about money
  • Being forced to retire before you want to
  • Seeing your kids or grandkids struggle
  • Having legal problems

On the other hand, here are a few examples of positive stressors:

  • Going back to school
  • Starting a new sport
  • Finding a new hobby
  • Meeting new people
  • Going back to the gym after years of sedentary life
  • Putting a financial plan in place
  • Getting back into the dating game
  • Moving to a new state or even country

Notice that any of the items in the second list could be considered stressful. They ask us to step out of our comfort zones and may require an investment of energy, money, time or social capital.

But, unlike the items in the first list, they lift us up, rather than pulling us down. They help us to feel alive rather than taking us one step closer to the grave. They may make us feel uncomfortable in the short term but they make us happier in the long-term.

As Lee M. Brower once said, “A thriving new beginning can and should be a time for amazing engagement, growth, connections, contributions and amazing possibilities.”

What’s the Right Balance When it Comes to Retirement Stress?

The bottom line is that, when we enter retirement and declare war on stress, we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Instead of seeing retirement as an opportunity to “take it easy” and live “stress-free,” we should see it as an opportunity to live with passion, energy and purpose.

To do this, we should wholeheartedly embrace eustress while working to reduce the causes of distress in our lives. This is the only way to get the most from the best years of our lives.

Do you think that there is such a thing as “good stress” and “bad stress” in retirement? What are you doing to reduce the causes of distress in your life, while increasing the causes of eustress in your life? Let’s have a conversation!