Sunday, December 3, 2017

What Makes Us Happy?

     There is no doubt we have some issues to face when we retire. We may have money problems or health problems. We may face episodes of boredom and loneliness, or fear that we'll become irrelevant as our careers fade into the distance and our children increasingly develop their own lives. But do these issues stand in the way of our happiness -- any more than any of the other problems we faced along the way?

     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.

18 comments:

Tabor said...

All good advice. I would suggest that if children become too busy for you or friends pass on, find new ways to keep your life meaningful. Volunteer.

Laura Lee Carter said...

"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.." Best kept secret in the USA! All I ever heard was how depressing it would be getting old...Nice surprise for me!

Olga Hebert said...

A good list. I love the business of my retirement -- busy doing the things I want to do or try.

DJan said...

I do exactly what I feel like every day, and that includes having a fixed routine. My husband does just the opposite and dislikes meeting a schedule. To each her own, and it's sure worked great for me, and next spring it will be ten years since I retired. I'm never felt bored but simply happy. Thanks for the great list! :-)

Linda Myers said...

I wonder sometimes how I ever had time to go to work. My life is full and busy.

I was lucky to find volunteer activities that are stimulating. I use the assets I've developed over the years, and I'm gaining some new ones. After I retired from IT I trained to become a mediator, and I use those skills often. I love it!

Anonymous said...

Your list captured what is so great about retirement. Each one is important no matter what stage of life we are in but, in retirement, we have more time to devote to them. Friends, family, health, experiences, and enjoyable activities. I know that I have never been happier.

retirementreflections said...

How refreshing for someone to actually say not to focus on money in retirement. I agree, beyond the basics, money alone does not make most people happier.
This is a very helpful list, Tom.

Anonymous said...

I like my life, too, especially doing things as a married couple.

still the lucky few said...

"The happiest people view retirement not as an endless vacation, but as a chance to pursue new opportunities and take on new challenges." This statement is supported by research, and believed by many, but I'm still surprised by about-to-be-retired people who don't buy it! I guess they have to live it for awhile before it rings true!

Red said...

We can also volunteer to our heart's content and try new things.

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! GREAT post. I completely agree that we not only have so much to look forward to as we age and retire--but we also can expect to be happier than ever. Isn't it nice to know that instead of the depressing ideas that were pushed around years ago--statements like, "you get old and then you die?" There is so much more to aging and happiness if we are willing to stay engaged and continue to grow and evolve. Of course I do acknowledge that our health has a big influence on your overall wellbeing, but if we can make conscious choices that help us stay healthy, and we have our basic needs met, the years ahead of us offer continued benefits. Thank you for all these reminders. ~Kathy

David @ iretiredyoung said...

This post is great. A must read for anyone with doubts about this new phase in their life.

Stephen Hayes said...

I love the idea of purchasing experiences rather than possessions. Our house is already too full of stuff.

Missy, John & Ros said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful post. I am in the about to retire category and have kept putting it off in case the money I have isn't enough. Your post is reassurance that sooner rather than later may be the best choice.

SmileIfYouDare said...

>>Don't worry about money.
That's number one on your list.

One way I approach this is to try to understand what is going on, what are the rules, what do I need to know. Not to stick my head in the ground.

Like, when to take RMD. Who knew it was complicated to figure out when to take the first one. So I researched it. Ended up writing about it. More to come.

Anonymous said...

Spot on, Tom.

Pat S. said...

Hey Tom --

One of your best columns. But it can take some work/focus to become comfortable in retirement if you feel a bit underutilized at first. Volunteering is a huge benefit.

Pat S.

Barbara said...

Nicely put. I have had quite a time settling into retirement. It was hard to stop running in the wheel all day long. Gradually, I have begun to enjoy a slower life. For some reason, the move has helped me accept my life even more. I think that because I had to reassemble some of the pieces in my life after the move that maybe it fits together a little better. But all your points are good and help appreciate what you have or can have.