Real Retirement: Serena Williams feels ‘no happiness’ retiring — just like many people who leave careers they love

Panorama of a city business district with office buildings and skyscrapers and superimposed data, charts and diagrams related to stock market, currency exchange and global finance. Blue line graphs with numbers and exchange rates, candlestick charts and financial figures fill the image with a glowing light. Sunset light.

The Golden Years can look pretty blue. Just ask Serena Williams. 

The sports icon notes in her Vogue cover story that she’s “evolving away from tennis.” She doesn’t like the word “retirement,” she says, because “it doesn’t feel like a modern word to me.” And indeed, Williams, who turns 41 in September, isn’t giving up working for good; she plans to continue growing her venture-capital firm, Serena Ventures, as well as growing her family. 

But she is leaving the tennis court after a legendary career that has included 23 Grand Slam singles titles — including the 2017 Australian Open while she was two months pregnant — and it sounds like she’s devastated by it. 

““There is no happiness in this topic for me … I hate it.” ”

— Serena Williams

“I’m going to be honest. There is no happiness in this topic for me,” Williams writes in Vogue’s September issue. “I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain. It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not.” 

Read more: Serena Williams retiring from tennis to focus on family — and her venture-capital firm

Williams writes that while she is ready for what’s next, the subject of stepping off the court still brings an “uncomfortable lump” in her throat, and she cries. Moving away from tennis is such a painful subject for her, in fact, that she’s only been able to discuss it with her therapist. It’s a “taboo topic” with her husband, entrepreneur and investor Alexis Ohanian. 

“One thing I’m not going to do is sugarcoat this,” Williams writes. “I know that a lot of people are excited about and look forward to retiring, and I really wish I felt that way.” 

““I know that a lot of people are excited about and look forward to retiring, and I really wish I felt that way.” ”

— Serena Williams

But it’s important to note that Williams isn’t alone here. Many people approach retirement with mixed feelings that can include sadness, regret, disappointment, fear and anxiety — even if they don’t talk about it. In fact, almost one in three retirees develops symptoms of depression, according to a 2020 meta-analysis of 11 studies analyzing the prevalence of depression in retirement. 

Related: Depression, isolation, loss of purpose: Could retirement be bad for your mental health?

And retirement counselors and mental health experts told MarketWatch that it was refreshing to see Williams normalize the challenge of leaving a career that you loved, or that gave you a sense of identity for decades. 

“Her feelings are very common. So many people have these feelings, but don’t share them, so for her to share this is extremely courageous,” said Dr. Leeja Carter, a sports psychologist and the executive director at the Coalition for Food and Health Equity in New Jersey. “Transitioning from your career can create all of the same feelings that Serena Williams is experiencing — sadness, but also some identity confusion. Who am I going to be now? Where do I go?” 

Dr. Jerrold Lee Shapiro, professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University, has also helped patients whose identities are wrapped up in what they do for a living. “I’ve worked with a lot of business leaders who struggle with, ‘If I’m not the CEO anymore, who am I?’” he said. Or Shapiro recalled that one of his friends recently mourned that people don’t call him “doctor” now that he’s retired, and he doesn’t know who he is as “mister” instead of “doctor.” 

“He was having a difficult time adjusting to a whole different life,” said Shapiro, author of “Finding Meaning, Facing Fears: Living Fully Twixt Midlife and Retirement.” 

“So to the extent that your identity is wrapped up in ‘what I do’ — instead of ‘who I am’ in total — retirement is going to be incredibly difficult,” he added. 

Read more: How to figure out what to do in retirement, and make the transition

And exacerbating these questions of identity and purpose is the loneliness and lack of structure that retirement can bring, noted Dr. Mark Aoyagi, a professor and co-director of sports performance psychology at the University of Denver. A 2012 University of California, San Francisco study found 43% of older adults (over 60) felt lonely, even though only 18% actually lived alone. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the nation’s loneliness epidemic worse. 

“It’s actually a high-risk time for suicide,” he told MarketWatch, explaining that feelings of hopelessness are one of the primary warning signs of suicidality. “And people who aren’t able to see a way to reconstruct their life separate from what they have been doing for so long can result in significant feelings of hopelessness.”  

Note: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the free, confidential National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Other services include the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741), the Veterans Crisis Line (press 1 after dialing the national Lifeline), the Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth (1-866-488-7386), the Trans Lifeline (877-565-8860) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline (call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746).

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, a GOAT (greatest of all time) in Williams’s league, has been candid about his own depression and thoughts of suicide after winning multiple Olympic medals. This is something Aoyagi said is commonly referred to as post-Olympic depression, or when that sense of purpose, and the structure of training, is suddenly just … over and done. 

“Not wanting to be alive is very scary, and I have felt it first hand,” Phelps told MarketWatch in 2017. But he’s found new purpose as a mental health advocate, including his recent documentary film project “The Weight of Gold” for HBO Sports.

So what can you do to make the transition to retirement more joyful and meaningful, too? 

Ease into it, if possible

If you have the ability to retire on your own terms, Aoyagi recommends slowly scaling in that change. This can include reducing your work hours gradually from 40 hours a week to 30 hours to 20 hours, which is less jarring than going from full-time to no-time overnight. 

“Smooth that transition and not have it be so abrupt,” he said. Going from a rigorous work or training schedule to just being “done” with work can “create incredible psychological stress, and it’s even traumatic,” Aoyagi said, citing the post-Olympic depression as a primary example. 

Best New Ideas in Retirement: You’re probably not ready to retire — psychologically

Shapiro at Santa Clara University recommends experimenting with what might be enjoyable in retirement while you’re still in your “mid-years” in your 40s and 50s. “Start checking out things that would be fun or provide meaning in your life,” such as volunteering. 

Stick to a schedule

Make sure your days and weeks are structured with people to see and things to do. “What many people look forward to in retirement is being on a beach on a boat doing nothing, but that will only ‘work’ for a couple of weeks, maybe six months if you’re lucky,” Aoyagi said. “Ultimately, for 40 years of your life, you thrived on structure, so you are probably going to want at least some of that in retirement.” 

So the experts recommend scheduling meet-ups with friends, including former colleagues, or taking advantage of this free time to do things you have wanted to do, but didn’t have the time during your career — such as learning a new skill. “Psychologically, the most crucial aspect of success as a retiree has to do with having a schedule,” said Shapiro. “If you don’t, the days just kind of get away from you, and then you spend your life going from one doctor’s appointment to the next.” 

Stay connected with friends and colleagues

As noted above, retirees can suffer feelings of loneliness and isolation once they are no longer going to a job every day. And social networks can disappear if most of your friends were at your former place of employment, or you move to a new community after you retire. 

“Human contact is really essential, and it’s been exacerbated horribly by COVID,” said Shapiro. He recommends picking up the phone and checking in with former colleagues, friends you’ve fallen out of touch with, and family members. “Get back in touch with people, have coffee, have lunch — that is amazing,” he said. 

Explore new hobbies

Finding a new sense of purpose can make your retirement more meaningful. And one way to hit upon that new passion is to have fun doing all of the things you were too busy to do before, whether that was learning a language, trying a new sport, learning to paint or sculpt, going back to school or trying a new type of exercise. 

“One friend of mine always wanted to be in a rock ’n’ roll band, but he got married, had kids and became an engineer,” said Shapiro. “But now at age 70, what is he doing? He’s in a rock ’n’ roll band with a ‘kid’ drummer who’s 60, and they play local restaurants and bars. It’s fabulous, and he’s having so much fun.” 

Give back to the community

Volunteering is a great way to check a few of these off your list: it can give you structure, a social network and a new sense of purpose. Plus, a 2020 study found that people over 50 who volunteered more than 100 hours a year (about two hours a week), had a lower risk of death and physical functioning limitations, as well as more optimism and purpose in life, and less depression, hopelessness and loneliness than those who didn’t volunteer.

Read more: This is the ‘secret sauce’ to retirement satisfaction

Carter, from the Coalition for Food and Health Equity, notes that Williams’s fellow A-list athletes like LeBron James and the late Kobe Bryant both found great purpose and satisfaction off the basketball court through philanthropy and business ventures. Or some former athletes become coaches and sports commentators. 

So even if you are not a pro athlete, perhaps there’s a way to use the skills you’ve honed throughout your career to help the next generation in your community, such as being a mentor, or tutoring in whatever subject you specialize in. “Even though the job ends, that doesn’t mean your engagement with the things you loved in your career has to end,” said Carter. “It just means it might look a little bit different.” 

Speak with a licensed therapist 

Williams writes that her therapist has been the only person she’s felt comfortable discussing this situation with, and the experts that MarketWatch spoke with also recommended sharing your concerns with a licensed mental health clinician to work through your feelings and come up with a coping strategy. Or, at least, to reach out to family, friends and co-workers, and make sure you have a support system through this transition. 

“What you’re feeling is just so very normal, and you shouldn’t ignore those feelings,” said Carter. “Most people do not set goals –– nor set realistic goals –– when it comes to thinking about what is in store for the next season of your life. So it’s important to talk to someone about setting and reaching those goals.”  

Learn how to shake up your financial routine at the Best New Ideas in Money Festival on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22 in New York. Join Carrie Schwab, president of the Charles Schwab Foundation.

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