In this video Tracey Spicer talks to world-renowned positive psychology and wellbeing expert Sue Langley of the Langley Group about ways to think about wellbeing in retirement.
Hi, I’m Tracey Spicer. We’re talking today to world-renowned positive psychology and wellbeing expert Sue Langley. But one of the best descriptions I’ve heard of her is that she’s just a really nice person. Hello, Sue.
Hello Tracey. It’s lovely to be here.
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What a beautiful way to be described. Do you know, one thing I’ve been thinking about lately is the misuse of the word wellbeing. What does wellbeing mean to you?
Yeah, look, it’s an interesting one. Because when you look at the research, everybody wants to operationalise everything so that we can define it, and then research it, etc.
I always think of wellbeing as linked to flourishing. As in, it isn’t about always being happy. It’s about being able to handle adversity and having overall wellbeing. If you look at the definition, it’s about how people feel and that they function well. So it’s, do I feel well, in general? I might have my ups and downs. But do I function well both personally and socially?
And the other interesting thing about wellbeing is it’s my evaluation. So that’s a really important thing. Because it’s how I evaluate my life. So you might say to me, “How’s your wellbeing out of 10?” And I go, “I think it’s, I don’t know, eight and a half.” And you’re like, “Really?” Well, you don’t get to define whether I evaluate I have high levels of wellbeing. So that’s a really tricky thing. It’s subjective.
And is there some kind of overlap with resilience, as well?
Yeah. So if you think about resilience, resilience is our ability to, if you like, bounce back from adversity and things like that. But for me, it’s part of wellbeing. So if you think about emotional intelligence, that’s how intelligently we use our emotions. That’s linked to wellbeing.
Resilience is how I manage my emotions. So of course that’s linked to wellbeing. Because if I manage them badly, and I get hit by adversity, and I don’t have the strategies to handle it, my wellbeing will take a hit. If I do have the strategies, those resilience strategies, to manage my emotions as they come up, then my wellbeing will continue to thrive.
Based upon that, how does wellbeing change as we age? And should we approach it differently at different stages of our lives?
That’s a good question. So again, if you look at the research, it will say, in general, wellbeing increases as we age. So if you look at the common theme, it says, “woo-hoo, wellbeing goes up as we get older.” The interesting thing is the dip that it takes when you have children. So if you look overall, usually what happens is sort of your wellbeing goes up, you get married, it has a little bit of a thingy. And then if you have children, it takes a big hit. And then it starts to creep up when they start leaving home.
But that doesn’t mean to say that children don’t make you happy. It’s just a different type of wellbeing. So we don’t tend to be happy sometimes when we’re wrangling our children. But we might have a huge sense of meaning that comes.
What they’ve found is, as you get older, there’ll be different components that contribute to your wellbeing. So you might not necessarily have the high highs of adrenaline rushing stuff that you have when you’re in your early 20s. But equally, you probably don’t have the devastating lows, because you’ve learned the skills to handle it. But what you do tend to find is that, as we get older, that sense of meaning often tends to be more… There’s more fulfillment, and what they call psychological wellbeing, as opposed to just the am I happy type of wellbeing.
I’m so glad you said that thing about kids while the kids are out of the house. I’m so glad they didn’t overhear that. You also write about how we need to feel like we matter. And that, in a way, that matters more as we get older. Particularly once we go into retirement.
Yeah, look, it’s an interesting thing of, human beings have basic psychological needs, if you like. We need to feel that we’re competent. We’re making a difference, if you like. We’re contributing to something.
And sometimes what can happen, particularly if we’re associated with a particular role, a job, a career, or something like that. When we move into retirement, that raison d’etre, the thing that is who I am, if that goes, and we don’t have something else, we can feel that we’re not needed anymore. Or we’re not contributing in the same way.
So sometimes when we move into retirement, a lot of people look for things that they can still feel needed. That we feel like we matter. And I think the word mattering is actually a really critical one.
We all want to feel like we matter to somebody, or to society. And sometimes we can lose that as we get older, if our identity is wrapped up in our task, or our job, or those sorts of things.
So have you noticed a gender difference in this? For example, a man who’s worked his whole life feeling a loss of meaning when he retires more so than a woman.
Yeah. I think there are differences. And I think as you kicked off, it’s often to do with the older style stereotypes. I’d like to think the world is changing a little bit more now. But often it was the male who went out and had the career in the 40 or 50 years, in a particular role.
And we’ve all had examples over the years of, when people retire, it’s almost like everything’s over. And sometimes death is followed quite quickly. Because it’s like people sort of wither up and die without that sense of mattering. That sense of competence and I’m contributing.
Whereas traditionally, women have often had other interests, or other components. As I said, I’d like to think that that’s changing. And hopefully not in a bad way, that both men and women will fall off the end of a cliff at the end of their career. But actually that we’re learning to perhaps be more even, more well-rounded, if you like. And know that we get our sense of self not just from our career. People have multiple careers now, multiple roles. So I’d like to think that that’s going to be different.
So regardless of agenda, how do we create or retain that sense that we do matter?
Yeah, look, that’s a really interesting one. And there are some key themes that have come out of the whole positive psychology and wellbeing space, that do give us a bit of a clue. One of the key things, and this is universal across cultures, which is why I love it. It doesn’t matter your age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, whatever it is, other humans need other humans. As in, one of the key contributors to wellbeing is human connection.
So one of the ways that we can ensure whatever age we’re at, but certainly into retirement, is that we stay connected to people. And this is why, even if you’re no longer connected to a particular work role, what other roles or what other groups, or… you mentioned book club. You’re a member of something. You’re a part of something. You’re a part of a group, and you’re connecting.
So that seems to be absolutely critical. And I don’t think that’s a surprise to anybody. The challenge for us is, is sometimes when we are not in a great emotional space, we disconnect from people. We don’t want to reach out. We don’t want to help, or volunteer, or support. We actually pull away. So I think that’s a key driver.
The other thing is some form of contribution that is meaningful to you. So we feel like we matter if we’re contributing in a way that’s aligned with my values, or my sense of meaning, if you like. Now that might be different to yours, to 10 other people. But if I am making a contribution of something that’s meaningful to me, and aligned to my values and who I am. And again, there’s a whole lot of research around this, called self determination theory and self concordance. As in, are we living concordant with who we are?
And I think that’s really critical as we get older. That we don’t feel we have to, “Ooh, all my friends say I’ve got to volunteer for meals on wheels or something. So I’ve got to go and do that.” If that is not meaningful to you, and it’s not contributing in a way that’s aligned to you, go find something that is. But we do need to matter in some way through contribution. That seems to be a key thing.
And you’ve just got to find whatever floats your boat.
Yeah, you really do. And investigate. Because one of the things, sometimes, is we get quite narrowed. And I think being curious about what else is out there. And again, we know that curiosity is a key thing that’s linked to wellbeing. Because it expands us.
You know, I spent my morning doing a whole session on neuroscience. And we were talking about how we grow new neurons. And I love the fact that they’ve recorded the oldest person growing a new neuron was 92. And I don’t know about you, Tracey. I want to be growing new neurons at 92. I think that’s pretty cool.
But that comes from learning new things, from being curious, from noticing, from exploration. And sometimes we can, as we get older, because we’ve got so much experience, we can narrow our world. We can get very critical because we know a lot. So other things it’s like, yeah, yeah, that’s not how we used to do it. This is not how it works, etc.
And it’s not to say that we aren’t experienced, and that experience isn’t valuable and valued. But sometimes curiosity as we get older is really, really important. Because it expands our view. It opens our mind, and helps us grow new neural connections.
It’s encouraging to know that we still keep learning during a lifetime. I often tell the story about how my dad, in his 70s, taught me how to use Facebook. What role does social media and online connectivity play in all of this?
Yeah. And that’s an interesting one. Because we know that lots of people can dismiss social media as negative. And there is lots of bad research about what it can do to our sense of empathy and connection and whatever you. But if you are feeling more isolated, for a number of different reasons, whether it’s physical health, mental health, or as we are at the moment, you do find that that can give us a connection to people.
But I suppose it’s like anything, whatever age you are, it’s using it wisely. You know, we can complain about what it can do for us, but it’s actually user error. If we use social media well, it can be really beneficial for us.
So you mentioned to me before we started recording, that used to be a lorry driver. You’re one of these incredible people with a portfolio career. What is your own personal plan for your retirement?
Well, Byron Bay features on my plan. But I want to be doing a PhD when I’m retired. Mainly because I’m too busy enjoying life. And I spend all of my days sharing knowledge and facilitating learning. And it’s what lights me up. So I figured that my PhD will be something I’ll leave till I’m in my retirement, potentially.
But I still want to be doing this for many, many years. And I remember quite a few years ago… I didn’t do my study still a little bit later in life. But I studied at Harvard, their positive psychology course, quite a few years ago now. And one of our assessments was, if there was, you didn’t need any money, and nobody would know that you had done what you’d done. So there’s no recognition and there’s no money required. What would you do?
And I wrote, I would do exactly what I do now. I would go out and share knowledge, facilitate learning, all this sort of stuff. And I got an A-plus. Because I love what I do. So I hope I’m doing this well into whatever retirement may mean. But I would like a few more walks on the beach up in Byron Bay. That would be pretty cool.
Sounds like a magnificent retirement. Sue Langley. Thanks so much for your time.
You’re welcome. Thank you, everybody.
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