Our narrative of success leads to unhappy retirements

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that successful people tend to see their own lives through the lens of this myth. “He is no hero who never met the dragon,” Jung wrote. “Equally, only one who has risked the fight with the dragon and is not overcome by it wins the hoard…He alone has a genuine claim to self-confidence, for he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby has gained himself.” Jung sounds like an egg-headed Tony Robbins there: Want to be a winner in your career? Then live your own hero’s journey—set your goals, struggle, suffer, sacrifice, win, and return victorious! The End.

It’s a nice narrative, especially if you’ve worked hard and done pretty well in life. The problem is the real-life ending, after the triumphant return. People have no script for that part. There’s no Star Wars sequel where Luke Skywalker hangs around the house all day, yelling because someone touched the thermostat and telling his grandkids about blowing up the Death Star for the thousandth time while they roll their eyes.

Of course, some people enjoy retirement, but since I have been writing about happiness later in life, many people who were successful earlier in life have reached out to me to say that retirement has been brutal: They feel unhappy, aimless, and bored. In search of—well, they’re not quite sure what—some have made bad choices, tanking their marriages (leading to what social scientists call “gray divorce,” which doubled in the 25 years between 1990 and 2015) or making stupid business decisions they don’t think they would have made when they were still employed. One person told me, “Since I quit working, I feel like a stranger to myself.”