Retirement and Meaningful Life


What makes life meaningful? This question may be difficult to answer for many.

In 2018, Pew Research Center released a report that attempted at answering this question for American adults. 4,867 adults on the American Trends Panel responded to an open-ended question about what makes their lives meaningful. The top source of meaning according to this assessment was family, with 69% mentioning family in their responses to the question. This was followed by 34% who mentioned their careers as a source of meaning in their lives.

There are many reasons why we would expect work to be a source of meaning and purpose in life. Work organizes our lives, giving us short-term goals such as getting to our offices in the morning and preparing for the next meeting or long-term goals such as advancing our careers. Work surrounds us with people and reminds us that we are part of a larger community, playing our part in making our societies function and improve.Through these roles and goals, work becomes a crucial part of our identity.

According to Gallup data, since 1990s, 55% of workers in the U.S. consistently report deriving a sense of identity from their jobs as opposed to viewing their jobs as something they do for a living.

These insights have implications for understanding people’s experiences of one of the most significant life transitions in life: retirement. Retirement brings changes to how our lives and identities are organized. Waking up to a new life where one does not have to get up every morning to show up for work (presumably without worrying about finances) may be an exciting prospect for some of us. For others, it may simply imply a void that is difficult to fill. These competing hypotheses suggest that retirement may have important effects on the sense of meaning and purpose people experience at later stages of life but the effects could go in both directions and/or differ systematically across individuals.

New Findings on Retirement and Sense of Purpose in Life

In our recent study with Nattavudh Powdhtavee from Warwick Business School and Ashley Whillans from Harvard Business School, published in Psychological Science, we investigated the puzzling question of whether and how retirement affects sense of purpose in life. We were not the first to ask this question. Existing evidence showed a negative relationship between retirement and purpose in life which supported a path to existential ennui upon retirement. However, this evidence was only correlational, so it was not possible to identify whether it was retirement decreasing purpose or decreases in purpose inducing the decision to retire. The correlations could also be picking up the effects of a third factor that could not be measured and controlled for in the analysis. For instance, illness or bereavement could cause people to retire while at the same time reducing their sense of purpose in life, which could create the appearance of a negative relationship between retirement and sense of purpose.

Photo by Max Harlynking on Unsplash

To isolate the causal effects of retirement, we took advantage of a quasi-experimental method from economics called instrumental variable analysis. This method uses an external factor that could not be determined by any of the variables studied but will cause a shift in our predictor variable of interest (retirement) so that we can measure how this shift affects our outcome (sense of purpose in life). The so-called ‘instrument’ we used was the age people become eligible for receiving their retirement benefits in the US as per the Social Security retirement benefits. Entering this age caused a significant jump in the probability of retirement in the population and we found a sizable increase in sense of purpose in life as a result of this retirement activity (.29 standard deviations).

In additional analysis, we also examined ‘who’ drove this positive effect and found that those who retired in response to government incentives were more likely to have lower income and education and they were dissatisfied in their jobs. They did not differ from others in terms of their baseline sense of purpose in life or health. We also explored the activities in which people begin to spend time upon retirement in our data and found an increase in time spent with grandchildren and other social activities such as playing games. These exploratory analysis further showed that as people decrease the time they spend at work, they may begin to spend time in other meaningful activities.

How long does the positive effect last?

Retirement theories have previously mentioned the possibility of a ‘honeymoon effect’ where people would feel euphoric shortly after retirement, although it has been unclear how long this effect would last. We were curious if the effects uncovered in our study would also demonstrate this predicted trajectory of an initial jump followed by a decline. Our data offered two periods with different time horizons: i) 0–4 years, and ii) 4–8 years, so we examined whether the effects differed across these periods. Consistent with the ‘honeymoon effect’, we found the positive changes in sense of purpose in life to be significant and more precise during the first four years after retirement. We did not find a negative effect between 4–8 years — but the estimates were not statistically significant. The size of the coefficient was still positive and somewhat close to the main estimates in magnitude (.20 standard deviations) but there was more variability in the estimates, suggesting that at the longer time horizons certain groups may begin to show deteriations in meaning and purpose in life.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash


First, our findings contribute to emerging longitudinal studies that demonstrate the pathways to a meaningful life. Relatedly, they help us understand broader health and well-being outcomes among at-risk populations and the role of social policies and individual decisions in determining these outcomes. One of the consistent findings that have been revealed by the research conducted by the Human Flourishing Program is that sense of purpose in life predicts a productive engagement with life, and better health outcomes and reduced risk of disease. Our findings imply that retirement may initiate a positive trajectory of health and well-being — especially among disadvantaged groups. Further, policies that delay retirement may negatively impact the health and well-being of vulnerable groups, at least for a period of time.

Second, our research poses interesting questions about the general idea that work is an important source of meaning and purpose in life, highlighting the important role played by the social-economic context in shaping the relationship between work and meaning. In a review study by researchers at the Human Flourishing Program (HFP), the idea that people’s careers and jobs may be “on net” a positive contributor to meaning and purpose in life has found some empirical support, with the caveat that this general relationship between work and well-being may be more complicated when social-economic contexts and inequalities are factored in.

Our findings are consistent with descriptive data at the population level which demonstrates the socio-economic gradient in the relationship work and meaning. In the above-mentioned Pew survey, for example, 48% of the high-income and college-educated people mentioned their career or jobs as a source of meaning in life whereas only 22–24% touched upon their career or jobs as what makes their lives meaningful. Similarly, the Gallup data cited before also show the percentage of people who derive a sense of identity from their jobs is 70% among college-educated adults and only 45% among those who don’t hold a college degree. Altogether, these findings show that opportunities to derive meaning and satisfaction from work are not distributed equally.

What is next?

Inquiries on the inherent meaning of work are deep and philosophical and with the advancement in measurements of meaning and flourishing, it is possible to provide insights into these topics using quantitative methods. The meaning of work has become an even more important topic during the pandemic as the number of employees who are quitting their jobs or retiring have increased, calling for more studies on the topic of how and why people find meaning through work.

Going beyond understanding the inherent meaning of work, future studies can examine how differences in the work environment shape meaning and purpose. A recent study by the Human Flourishing Program has found that the sense of purpose people find at work predicts the sense of purpose that they experience in life. These insights invite studies to understand which factors that define the quality of our jobs will also determine the quality of our lives and how we can modify work policies and practices (or introduce new ones) to enhance meaning and purpose.

Finally, we need theoretically-grounded explanations as to how and why SES may determine the well-being outcomes of work. Is it the quality of the jobs or the values and priorities that differ across SES groups? Given the strong influence from the context, we would also expect cultural values to play a role in shaping the contributions of work and retirement to meaning. There is a need for more cross-cultural studies on this topic, which could be enabled by multi-country data collection initiatives such as the Global Study of Human Flourishing.

Ayse Yemiscigil, Ph. D. is Ayse Yemiscigil is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. She is also a Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School.
Twitter: @yemiscigil



The Human Flourishing Program @ Harvard University

Founded in 2016, studies and promotes human flourishing, and develops systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across disciplines