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.