"In this sticky web that we're all in, behaving decently is no small task." -- Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Can We Be Happy for the Rest of Our Lives?

     Psychologists say 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 mean level of happiness. But the experts also tell us that as we get older, our happiness set point gradually goes up, from a low in our 40s to a high sometime in our 60s or 70s. In other words, most people get happier as they get older.

     In addition, retirement gives us a happiness bonus. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, retirement by itself 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 own lives.

     That's what the experts say. Then I got thinking about it. Personally, I admit that I have a lot of nostalgia for the 1990s, when I was doing well at work (before the you-know-what hit the fan in the 2000 - 2002 recession), when my kids were growing up and we lived in a big house and we had lots of like-minded friends and my parents were still alive and I was still relatively young and active.

     But there were a lot of pressures. I was worried about money (I had two kids who wanted to go to college ... imagine that!). I was worried about my job; I was working 50 - 60 hours a week; my marriage was showing strains (and we ultimately got divorced).

     So am I happier now . . . now that I'm well into my 60s? Are you?

     Let's look at some specifics.

     Well, I try not to worry about money. This is easier said than done. But with Social Security, Medicare and an IRA, I have a basic and secure level of income. Also, I have no prospects for more income; so I'm relieved of that nagging feeling called ambition.

     Studies have shown after a certain  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 more is what we focus on. I think by now we all know there is no reason to envy those who have more than we do, for they are not necessarily happier. Instead, we can relax and focus on the blessings we enjoy in our own lives -- family, friends and the activities we choose to spend our time on.

     Most of us, I think, are now using our money to purchase experiences, not possessions. (In fact, a lot of us are trying to get rid of possessions!) Or as B says, we want to use what money we have to create positive and lasting memories for our friends, our children and ourselves. So we're not taking out a big loan to buy a fancy car that will impress the neighbors. We're over that. Instead, we go visit our kids, and our new grandchild. We get together with our siblings (Easter at B's sister's house this year) or we invite friends over for dinner or meet them for a show.

     In other words, I think we all make more time for family and friends. So maybe there's a theme developing here, one that provides the key to unlocking the secret to happiness in retirement. We all know that shared experiences bring more happiness than those experienced alone. Why else do people go on Facebook or Instagram? Or write a blog?

     Think of the last time you were 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.

     Retirement also gives us the time to take care of ourselves. When we're young it's easy to think we'll live forever, that nothing will hurt us. How many of us smoked back in the 1960s and '70s? How many were chained to a desk all day, all week, and then too tired and stressed-out to get to the gym?

     We now know that good health is a key to happiness and most of us, I think, are focusing on eating right, getting some exercise, and avoiding too much stress. With no boss, no kids to worry about, we can finally put ourselves first, to look and feel our best. I've even read about surveys showing that cosmetic surgery can make us happier. Why? Because nothing makes us feel better than knowing we look our best.

     We can finally do what we want. It doesn't matter whether we're perfecting our golf game, babysitting grandchildren, doing arts and crafts or hiking the Appalachian Trail. The important element for happiness is that we are involved in something that engages our interest, that gives us a sense of purpose to our lives, that gets us out of bed in the morning. Not stumbling out of bed at 7 a.m. to shower and rush to work. But jump out of bed ready to meet the day.

     It seems the happiest people view retirement not as an endless vacation, but as a chance to pursue new opportunities and take on new challenges. So I guess the lesson for all of us is, don't be afraid to say no to people who even with the best of intentions try to steal our time for their own purposes. Instead, we need to focus on the people who are important to us, and the activities that we believe are worth our time and energy.


Celia said...

I agree. Taking myself and my grandkids somewhere or to something they've never seen is really satisfying. And doesn't have to be dusted off. :-)

Wisewebwoman said...

Happiness is complex that, as the old saying goes, it is an inside job and I truly believe that it is not a destination but a journey, ongoing.

A great post, much to mull over. I am a recovering workaholic. I still take the odd contract but only what I know I will enjoy.

I have a tiny family but enjoy them intensely.


Tabor said...

Also giving back...feeling that you still have something to contribute that helps others.

Anonymous said...

So true. I am glad I am married and enjoy the concerts, operas, and art receptions with my husband.

Carole said...

Love this post. All so true. As I find myself in the new role of living alone, I am pleasantly surprised at my interest and willingness to reach out and make new friends, and nourish old friendships. This was so difficult to do when working. Now there is time to pursue this ever so important relationships and stay connected.

DJan said...

I too have been enjoying my retirement, for ten years now. I am never bored but often find myself wishing I could manage to accomplish more every day. I get my exercise in first, then read or play outdoors, whatever I want. I like especially that I am the one who makes my schedule, nobody else. And I always find time to spend each day with my dear partner of the heart. :-)

Bob Lowry said...

Well said, Tom. Early next year we have decided to take our immediate family (10 of us, including 3 grandkids) to Disney World. The cost means no other major vacation trip in 2019, but we decided to do this in a heartbeat. To see the joy on everyone's face and create lifelong memories is priceless.

Tom at Sightings said...

Yes, giving back is important too, and can bring a lot of satisfaction. Bob, what a wonderful idea ... you'll have a great time!

Sue from Sizzling Towards 60 & Beyond said...

I'm in two minds about happiness in retirement, Tom. When I'm spending time with my grandson, who is almost 4 he teaches me to be in the moment and enjoy myself. I find great happiness spending time with him. On the flip side, having retired early I find it hard to settle and so am constantly looking for things to do to fill the void of working. It truly is a balance but happiness is really up to the individual and what we perceive as happiness. On the whole, yes I'm happier now at 60 - I'm healthier and enjoying more experiences such as travel plus new grandbabies so life is pretty good!
Sue from Sizzling Towards 60 & Beyond

Olga said...

Well, I am certainly much, much happier now than I was in my 40's. I would believe my happiness set point has crept up a little, amybe even a lot.

retirementreflections said...

I love this research, Tom. I agree with it, too. I have considered myself happy at most stages of my life. I grew up in a great family and I loved my career. Yet, retirement has definitely reduced the pressures and has allowed me to be more myself. It is a great gig so far!

amotheradaughterandlife said...

I am very happy in retirement. We spend our money on experiences also. We have eight grandchildren and two great-grandsons and they are all joys.

Mona McGinnis said...

I often quote a. k. chalmers - The grand essentials of happiness are something to do, something to love and something to hope for. I know that I am a happier person in my 60's than I was in earlier years; maybe it's because I give it more thought now. I am more purposeful, mindful and more grateful. I am definitely happier in my own skin than I used to be; I've learned to be my own best friend. If ambition is a desire to achieve a particular end, then I am still ambitious in retirement since my purpose is to take care of myself and my home space. I invested in my pension during my career, so like you, I have a basic and secure level of income. I have enough.

Linda Myers said...

A really fine post, Tom. I agree with all of it. It's especially good to know that others are finding the same satisfactions in retirement.

Spending our money on the experiences. Yep!

Madeline Kasian said...

Took me a couple of years to learn to leave go of ambition. But I am there now. At almost-65 I am happier than I've ever been.In general,I've been happy most of my life.. even during upsets and set backs,I tend to bounce back quickly. But these elder years are proving to be very enlightening--I am happier with less, and I treasure having my time be my own-- I have more time to spend on my health and iftness.More time to spend with my husband ,just having fun. And more time to reflect and work on my spiritual side. Downsizing from larger house to smaller one (relatively speaking..) relieved me of some housework and maintenance, yet my husband still has enough yard to enjoy his gardening hobby. I get twinges of money worries, but we planned well and mostly it's turned out as we thought it would (interest rates iwll go up eventually,right???) I feel blessed to be able to be retired and healthy enough so far to enjoy it!

Carol said...

I'm new to this blog, and enjoying Tom's posts, and everyone's coments. In many ways, at the age of 67, I am resistent to telling people I am 'semi-retired,' let alone 'retired', although I probably work less than 20 hours a week. Did anyone else go through such a period of transition? I teach as an adjunct, and do freelance writing. In the last year, I have been struggling with a strong feeling that I need to rev up my work and recapture my identity through it. On some level I know this is ridiculous. It must have something to do with not accepting / embracing the reality of this time of life. The compulsion to recapture earlier success has become stronger in the past year, since my mother passed away. Can anyone relate?

Rebecca Olkowski said...

I wish I could say I could ever retire but made choices when I was younger and experienced obstacles that made that impossible. So I guess you could say I'm more terrified than happy even though I'm not someone who gets terribly stressed out. I'm pretty adaptable and creative plus have downsized a bunch. Right now I'm trying to find ways to be independent because having been a widow, I know I can't depend on anyone else.

Tom said...

Carol --

Well, I've been semi-retired for 15 years now, and have gotten quite used to it. Actually, I had no problem right from the beginning (except a little worry about money) since I was more than ready to give up the corporate rat race and settle into a less-lucrative but more-satisfying freelance career. But my wife B seems more like you -- she retired as a librarian a year and a half ago, and despite two fairly demanding volunteer jobs still feels a little guilty sitting around the house, having so much free time, and worrying that she should be contributing more. But B is young for her age (she looks good, feels good, has long-lived genes) and has a lot of energy, and maybe that's where you are too. But if so, that's not a bad problem to have!

Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com said...

Hi Tom! In answer to your question--yes! At least I plan to. Fortunately I am in good health (and so is Thom) and we have the resources to live comfortably and do most of the things we want to do at this age. Of course, we are still working and at this point aren't even sure we will EVER retire. I tend to think (and you know I've written about it before) that none of us should wait to retire to find our "happy place." And that isn't a location but a state of mind. If we focus on all the things you say do make us happy (and yes they do!) then why wait? Fortunately the older we get the more most of us realize that all that chasing after stuff and prestige is really that gratifying anyway. I believe that it is good or us to find that contentedness that comes when we know who we are, and take steps to remember what matters to us each and every day. Great post filled with good reminders for us all. ~Kathy

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bw said...

Carol - Yes, I can relate to your comments - during my 6 years of semi-retirement. I "solved" the need to capture earlier work successes by accepting 2-5 month projects in my professional field - 2 of which were fairly challenging, while the 3rd was one of the bigger challenges of my career. After 5 years of proving to myself that I could still accomplish important tasks, the need to do so has been totally satisfied. I now get my need-to-succeed jollies by planning and executing international travel plans!

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