Psychologists have demonstrated that each of us has our own individual set point of happiness. As events unfold in our lives we may temporarily become more or less happy, but then as time goes on we revert to our own mean level of happiness. However, those same experts also tell us that as we get older, our happiness set point gradually goes up. In other words, most people get happier as they get older.
Then retirement gives us a bonus. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, retirement by itself often produces a positive impact on people's sense of well-being, a feeling that lasts for a considerable length of time. Why? Because there are fewer demands on our time, and we have more control over our lives. We experience less pressure, less stress; and we enjoy a less-hectic lifestyle.
So what can we do to bolster our happiness levels as we retire and get older? You may have your own ideas -- and I'd love to hear them -- but here are five ideas I have as they apply to my own life.
Don't worry about money. Easier said than done. But multiple studies have shown that after a certain basic level of income that covers housing, health care and other necessities, there is no relationship between how much money we have and how happy we are. What matters is what we focus on. So there is no reason to envy those who have more than us, for they are not happier than we are. But there is plenty of reason to focus on the blessings we enjoy in life, whether it's close family ties, a supportive group of friends or an opportunity to spend time pursuing an activity we love.
Use money to purchase experiences, not possessions. Many of us have recently downsized and spent countless hours disposing of carloads of material possessions. Some of those things are valuable -- but almost always for the memories they evoke, not for their intrinsic market value. B is always reminding me that it's not important to drive a fancy car, or watch a bigger TV. We should use our money to create positive and lasting memories with our friends and children, or just for ourselves. So we don't live in the most exclusive neighborhood, we don't shop at Nordstrom's. Instead, we go on vacation, invite friends for dinner, organize a family get-togethers -- and B has been known to pay for those who can't afford to come.
Make time for friends and family. You can see a theme developing here. We all know that shared experiences bring more happiness than those experienced alone. Why else do people go on Facebook or Instagram? Just think of the last time you ate alone in a restaurant with your nose stuck in a book or magazine. It probably wasn't much fun. But when you go to the same restaurant with friends, you almost always have a good time talking and laughing and sharing your stories.
Take care of yourself. People in poor health almost always report lower levels of happiness than people who are in good shape. It works the other way around, too. People who eat better, get more exercise and suffer less stress tend to lead healthier and happier lives than the sedentary couch potatoes. So while we want to be connected to other people, we also want to make time to treat ourselves right. Surprisingly, some surveys have even shown that cosmetic surgery makes people happier, both in the short term and over longer periods of time. Why? Because nothing makes people feel better than knowing they look their best.
Engage in an interesting activity. Not necessarily an activity that is interesting by some objective measure -- surfing in Hawaii, say, or acting in a play, or walking El Camino de Santiago -- but something that's interesting to you. It doesn't matter whether you're perfecting your golf game (by the way, did I tell everyone that I got a hole-in-one this past summer?!?), babysitting your grandchildren, doing arts and crafts or . . . or writing on your blog. The important thing is that we get involved in something that bounds us out of bed in the morning and gives us a sense of purpose. The happiest people view retirement not as an endless vacation, but as a chance to pursue new opportunities and take on new challenges.
I've found that what makes us truly happy in retirement is that there are no more expectations. We don't have to please our parents, or bear responsibility for our kids. We can move to the city, or the country. We can do something, or do nothing. No matter how well-financed we may or may not be, we can live the lifestyle of the truly wealthy – that is, we can do what we want and answer to nobody.