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A 67-Year-Old American Shares What Retirement Is ‘Really' Like—With ‘No Work and All That Free Time'

Photo: Janet Blaser

In 2006, I packed my bags and moved from Santa Cruz, California to Mazatlán, Mexico. I was attracted by the city's beauty and tropical climate, a simpler lifestyle, and the chance to have a real adventure.

I continued my career as a freelance writer and even started my own magazine before I decided to retire in 2018. That's when everything shifted.

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In theory, retirement — with no work and all that free time — sounds like a dream. No deadlines? Living near the beach in a $420-per-month rental apartment? Count me in.

But it wasn't an entirely smooth journey at first.

What the early years of retirement is really like

After I stopped working, my circle of friends and the community I'd established over the years seemed to shrink. I didn't know who I was or what I wanted anymore. I'd thought I wanted a "new life." But without those foundations, I floundered.

I reached out to my best friend, who is a little older than me, and told her that I felt lost.

"Up until now, you didn't have time to really consider how you want to spend the rest of your life. You were far too busy," she said. "It's perfectly natural to feel that there may be no point to anything you're doing, because you don't have to do anything in particular right now." 

Her wise words resonated with me, and slowly I was able to adopt a more positive mindset: In this stage of my life, it was OK to do whatever I wanted, especially if it brought me joy, relaxation and contentment.

A new, life-changing perspective

It's been five years since I felt stuck, and I'm now in a much happier place. 

I still wake at 6 a.m. every day. But instead of going to the office, I go surfing, have breakfast with friends, or take a brisk walk. I also do a daily meditation and yoga practice.

Otherwise, I putz in my yard. I do a bit of writing. Once in a while, I have small get-togethers at my apartment. I'm kind of embarrassed by how deeply satisfying and comforting my simple routines are, and by how much I care for my cats.  

After a morning swim, hair still wet, I'd rather eat at my favorite coffee shop than cook at home.
Photo: Janet Blaser
After a morning swim, hair still wet, I'd rather eat at my favorite coffee shop than cook at home.

Older friends used to tell me about sitting and reading a book during the day and I couldn't imagine doing that. Now it's a great joy. I love opening a book while I have lunch and having the freedom to keep reading if I feel like it.  

Research says we need meaningful purpose to feel satisfied in life, and without work, many retirees struggle to find that.

I'm lucky that I still do a little freelance work, which makes me feel productive and connected. But more than that, what gives my retired life purpose is a sense of calm and (dare I say) wisdom that colors everything I do.

I want to make the most out of the time I have left. What will I be remembered for? I may not be able to donate millions of dollars to charity, but I can spread love and happiness. Even just a smile at a fellow beach-walker is a worthwhile exchange to me. 

How to find happiness in retirement

Retirement isn't an end point. It's a major transition, and change is hard. 

This part of life can be lonely. There's a lot of time to reflect and reevaluate what matters. And thinking about what you want to do with your remaining years isn't always fun.

The sea wall near my apartment offers a great view of the sunset!
Photo: Lucas Mullikin for CNBC Make It
The sea wall near my apartment offers a great view of the sunset!

But my regrets (will I ever get to Italy or learn to walk on stilts?) are balanced by joyous milestones, like the births of my children and grandchildren, every wave I've ever surfed, and finally making a perfect pavlova. 

I've found that the best advice for a happy retirement is to be present and in the moment. Without outside expectations and schedules, with your time finally fully your own, at last you can try to create a new version of the life you always wanted.

Janet Blaser is a writer who has lived in Mazatlán, Mexico since 2006. A former journalist in California, her work now focuses on expat living. Janet's first book, "Why We Left: An Anthology of American Women Expats" is an Amazon bestseller. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

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