It’s against my nature to join anything, as Groucho Marks said … Despite this attitude and grave reservations, I recently join an on-line community called The Psychology Network and I had a reason for doing so that was related to this blog. I wanted to post a question to my esteemed colleagues around the world. I wanted their views on which aspects of psychology they thought might have particular relevance for / to the retired person. Unfortunately, despite a couple of attempts, my question – a good one I thought – never saw the light of day. So the thoughts and information in this blog are all my own.
The last time I wrote a blog about psychology and retirement I wrote about Solutions Focused Therapy and, among the ideas this approach had to offer, was the need to identify which aspects of your life, prior to retirement, you wanted to have continue into retirement either, at a broad level such as which values will carry on being important to you, or, at a more specific level, which parts of your life – hobbies, interests, etc. – do you want to make a part of your retirement life?
This time I want to write about an area of psychology called Cognitive Behaviourism or more commonly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). People may well have heard of it as it seems to be the therapy of choice for people with ‘depression’, more specifically, for those people and their GPs who are trying to avoid medication. It is also an area of psychology that has great relevance to the area of self-esteem and, in the context of this blog, self-esteem and retirement. The next time I write I intend to write about the relevance of Behaviourism to retirement, this being the paradigm that preceded CBT. At its simplest Behaviourism said that organisms i.e. human beings reacted to events in their environment. In behaviourist terms this was called signal – response, where response is our behaviour (s-r for short). This basic – too basic for some – explanation as to why human beings behaved or were ‘motivated’ to behave as they do, was particularly popular among educational psychologist looking to explain the behaviour of children in school and at home and strategies for remediating their problem behaviour. Find out what was reinforcing negative behaviour and change the reinforcer. That is all I want to say at this point but I have introduced behaviourism at this stage because it is important in an understanding of CBT.
What CBT basically said was that it’s not as simple as that, human beings do not just simply react to whatever comes their way. Rather they, cognitively – through their thinking – interpret what is happening to them. A popular, brief ‘summary’ of the CBT position was the saying – there is no such thing as facts only the interpretation we put upon them. The relevance of this we will see in a moment. Given the title of this paradigm Cognitive Behaviourism, it is no surprise that the role of cognitions – what we think – figures large. In CBT we have s-o-r or signal – organism – response. Where organism is the person and specifically their thoughts. In some versions this is developed into the Emotions, Cognitions, Behaviour interaction (as in the logo above). I do not intend in this blog to complicate the link between cognitions and emotions. Some versions suggest that negative thinking leads to negative emotions – sadness, anger etc, Other versions suggest it is the other way – emotions affect cognitions. Either way, while it is reasonable to suggest a link between cognitions and emotions, I want to stay with cognitions – what we think – because I believe examining cognitions is better value than trying to tease apart our emotions. A much messier business in my experience.
Another aspect of CBT is an examination of what has been called ‘faulty thinking’. Again this blog is not the place to go into great detail about the types of ‘faulty thinking’ that CBT is very good at identifying but a couple of example will give the idea – black and white or all or nothing thinking – people who kill other people should be executed; over-generalisations – all people in gaol are bad people; drawing a conclusion based on little evidence – that person is looking at me, they don’t like me. As I recall there are about 12 examples or categories of these kinds of faulty thinking. Retirement is an area, a stage of life in which it is possible, probable even, for faulty thinking to flourish. For example, “I’m past it,” might be the most succinct. Incidentally, in a related area of psychology called Rational Emotive Therapy (RET), this type of thinking has been titled Irrational Beliefs. But again this is an area for a different blog.
What is important in this blog is to accept that there is a link between our thinking and our behaviour. After all as Rene Descartes put it – I think therefore I am (what I am). Again simply put (too simply really) if we have bad thoughts it will ‘cause’ bad behaviour and by ‘bad’ I mean, possibly self-destructive behaviour, self-defeating, behaviour, broadly behaviour that gets in the way of achieving our retirement goals. And while this blog is not about self-esteem as such it is not too difficult to see the impact of too much habitual, negative thinking on our self-esteem. There are a number of books about the relationship between our cognitions and self-esteem, one I was reading recently is entitled 50 Mindful Steps to Self-Esteem by Janetti Marotta and while I do not agree with all the suggestions in the book, it is a useful one for further reading about the cognitions, self-esteem link.
The relevance of CBT for the retired person specifically (although of course it applies to any age group), is that, in a sense, retirement is what we make of it, largely depending on what we think about it(of course factors such as health and finance can also have an enormous effect, but this blog is not about these areas). So two people might have very different views of basically the same retirement life. Person A’s view is ‘Oh God, I’m retired, I’m old, I’m finished, useless’. Person B’s view is – ‘great, I’m retired, what a wonderful opportunity to try something different’. It’s not always that black and white but generally people have a pre-disposition to one view (type of thinking) or the other. Whether this is genetic, an outcome of our life experience or a combination or interaction of the two, this blog is not the place to discuss. The point is that people are predisposed to think in different ways about retirement and these ways of thinking are not always helpful. People, prone to what have been called negative thoughts about themselves, are likely to have low self-esteem and vice versa. Similarly people inclined to negative thoughts about their retirement are likely to have an unhappy retirement.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that a) it is possible to identify your ‘natural’ style of thinking – glass half full / half empty kind of thing and b) it is possible to change that style to have a better retirement experience. In this blog I am going to consider these two areas but only briefly. So the first step in using the lessons of CBT to enhance your retirement experience, is to ask yourself what your current style of thinking is about retirement? What do you typically say to yourself about being retired? You have to really pay attention to your default thinking, you have to burrow down and ask yourself – what am I really thinking about my retirement? Don’t kid yourself, excavate the truth about your thoughts. If, in so doing, you find that there are a number of negatives in there. For example, “I’m frightened of being retired, I won’t know what to do,” or “I’m sure there must be more to retirement than this, I thought it would be great and it’s not.” Always the advice is write these down, it can be hard but they may be too fragile to keep them in your head.
Then, next to each negative statement, write a positive opposite. In the case of the above. “I don’t have to have it all worked out in advance, relax and let things develop” or “My dissatisfaction is a good thing. OK, it’s good to have dreams about all that retirement can be, let’s try and pin these dreams down so I can do something about them.” To every negative statement there is a sensible, believable, opposite thought. Having identified these thoughts your task is to train yourself to replace your formerly negative thoughts with these positive opposites. It’s not easy to begin with because we tend to take self-protective comfort from our old style of thinking. However, research and personal experience shows it can be done. The positive thoughts become the norm.
That said, and to round this blog off, I do not want to become or be seen to be advocating the ‘happy, clappy’ style of thinking. I think that positive thinking or positive psychology has been given far too much credence over the last couple of decades or so. A productive retirement is not all about having ‘happy’ thoughts. I want to suggest what I think is a better style of thinking. I have called it skilful thinking and this will be the focus of a future blog. This one is already too long. Writing about things in retirement should be a succinct and snappy experience. If possible.