What is a Happy Retirement?
The most successful retirees are the ones with the biggest bank accounts, right? Not necessarily. Although good financial planning and a solid retirement strategy play major roles in being comfortable and content after leaving the workforce, there’s more to it.
Retirement is more than dollars and cents or a red-circled date on the calendar.
More money doesn’t hurt, but health and relationships with peers matter just as much to retirees. If you’re looking for happiness in retirement, you can forget relationships with adult children, buying a slick car to cruise the cul-de-sac or lounging at a beach cabin in Mazatlán, Mexico.
Instead, there are three categories that lead to satisfaction—when you have enough money, when you have relationships with your peers and community, and when you have your health. These three things might seem different, but they have one critical thing in common: They all require investment before retirement.
This was the upshot of a panel dedicated to finding happiness in retirement held at Morningstar’s September Investment Conference in Chicago. The panel took the unusual tack of not just presenting thought leaders (although they were there), but also giving first chair to an actual retiree who could verify or dispute the points raised.
“I wish I had heard this [discussion] 10 years ago, because I probably wouldn’t have as many marks and scars on my shins from bumping into things finding these things out,” said Jim Linday of Chicago, who is now a retired individual investor but was once a financial professional and teacher. “The one thing I can add from somebody who has been through that transition is that when you plan for retirement, it’s like staging a very beautiful still photograph. And the very first day you’re in retirement it becomes a full-motion video. And you have to accept that retirement is not going to be exactly the way you planned it out because of a whole host of reasons. That’s not to say you were wrong, or you didn’t get it right. It’s just like when we were at work: Things change.”
According Dorian Mintzer, Ph.D., retirement coach and co-author of The Couple’s Retirement Puzzle: 10 Must-Have Conversations for Creating an Amazing New Life Together, it’s also about attitude. Understanding that this stage is just as much about good planning as it is about taking on the unknown with an open mind and enthusiasm is an important step. Ms. Mintzer stated in a recent interview with annuity provider Athene, “The happiest retirees embrace the range of possibilities and new beginnings in store for them.”
Ms. Mintzer suggests that there’s four shared traits of happy retirees and gives us suggestions on how to make them our own.
- They’ve found a new purpose in life.For many of us, working and raising a family provide meaning and structure to our lives, both in terms of how we spend our days and in how we see ourselves (“I am a lawyer” or “I am a nurse”). Those who transition most successfully into retirement find new ways to shape their days and new ways to identify themselves. “Smart retirees think about what they’re retiring to, rather than what they’re retiring from,” says Mintzer.Make it yours. Before saying goodbye to work, ask yourself some questions to help you find your path to happiness.
- How do you want to spend your time in retirement?
- Do you want to work part time or start an encore career to stay active and socially connected?
- Do you find your sense of purpose in helping others?
- Do you want to spend more time with family — babysitting grandkids, for example.
- Are there hobbies, like woodworking or learning a new language, that you want to pick up again or something new you’d like to learn?
Have some fun when you leave the 9-to-5 routine behind and then answer these questions to help you find new purpose.
Sidenote: the Her Retirement personalized retirement readiness platform has an entire module dedicated to envisioning your retirement with questions like I just mentioned. You can access the software via the Her Retirement website at: www.HerRetirement.com.
Trait number 2: They have their financial house in order. People who do well have taken time to realistically look at what they can afford to live on, and they adjust their retirement date if they’re not fully ready. Many people may be retired 20 or 30 years … or more. “And that requires careful forethought,” says Mintzer. It’s not necessarily about having a huge nest egg but rather about being honest with yourself. For example, our money will last XX years with this budget. When you know what you have to work with, it’s a matter of planning accordingly.
As best you can, calculate how much money you will need to live on. If you’re nearing retirement or have recently left the workforce but feel you aren’t near your financial goals, you may want to consider different options to help bridge the gap — downsizing your home to lower housing costs or paying off debts, such as car loans, for example.
Sidenote: our readiness software platform helps you get your financial house in order and does all the calculations to identify your gaps, risks and opportunities.
From a financial perspective, you should also consider what we call our Personal Pension & Protection Plan. With its growth potential, protection from loss due to market downturns and guaranteed income to help your money last as long as it needs to, this type of plan may be a part of your diversified retirement strategy.
Trait number 3. They live life with zest but are realistic about their health. It’s not easy to think about your health declining, but it’s a fact many people may face as they age thanks to longer lifespans and better medical care. The retirees with the best futures are those who take their well-being seriously. An upbeat outlook combined with frequent exercise and plenty of activities that keep your brain active can help you feel better and may help improve your overall health. Surround yourself with friends and family who are there to help if you need it. I’ve heard many reports that ballroom dancing is one of the best activities for physical and mental health as we age.
In addition, think about how, and where, you want to age. For example, while it’s never easy to uproot your life, you may be happier relocating to a home in which you’ll have less to care for. Proximity to public transportation, neighbors and family are also important considerations. At 56, my significant other and I are trying to figure this out. We are having a really hard time determining where we want to live next and if we should plan on it being our “retirement home.” We still have significant family needs to consider and would like to stay close to our 6 kids, or at least to as many of them as possible. I guess you can plan, but you also need to have some flexibility in case the plan changes.
And trait number 4. They’re good communicators. This is especially important for couples who want to negotiate different visions of retirement. If one of you worked while the other stayed home, for example, retirement represents a big shift in how your days are spent. Happy retirees find ways to strike a balance between time together and time apart. It’s important to maintain outside friendships or find new ones in addition to your together time.
If you’re part of a couple, it’s important to be on the same page so this stage of life can be the best for both of you.
- Start conversations before one or both of you retires.
- Share your dreams and visions, as well as your individual and combined bucket lists.
- Talk about the ideas you share and the ones you don’t.
- Prioritize and look at your finances to decide the best way to reach your goals together.
- If you haven’t listened to my podcast from last week, episode 27, take a listen. It’s about issues to consider when couples retire together or separately.
So What Makes People Happy?
In another study known as the Health and Retirement Study, Michael Finke, professor of wealth management at the American College of Financial Services and a researcher in the areas of retirement spending, life satisfaction and cognitive aging, looked to the data to make some of his own conclusions.
This was a study of 20,000 retirees that began in 1994, following them up to 2018. Looking at the data from the study we see that there are three core elements to life satisfaction: The Three Pillars of Life Satisfaction in Retirement. According to Finke, the first pillar is money. Having more money does make you happier, and it seems to have a relatively linear effect up to about $4 million. With $4 million, most people will experience peak happiness. The second pillar he mentioned is relationships with peers and community, and the third is health.
In his analysis, Mr. Finke commented, “All of these three things are investments. And what I mean by an investment is it’s anything you sacrifice during your working years in order to live better in the future. So our health is an investment when we exercise and eat better,” he continued. He said relationships are an investment too. But no pillar leads to happiness on its own, especially not the simple accumulation of money during one’s working years. It’s an investment in all three—money, health and community—that leads you there.
For Her Retirement, I created what I call the Good Life pyramid. I use it for coaching and retirementorship. When women engage with us, we have some pretty deep conversations not just about money, but each level of my pyramid. The result of the conversations is a good life plan that makes you happy.
The top of the pyramid is your purpose. Re-defining your purpose in retirement is critical. You want to retire to what inspires you. The next level is your vitality because without mental and physical health you can’t do much in life or retirement. Making sure to prioritize your vitality is a critical component of your Good Life plan.
Next comes your connections. I believe that a retiree’s happiness is very closely tied to their social network and relationships. And I’m not alone. Susan Pinker, a well known psychologist shared her viewpoint on what leads to longevity and happiness. In her TedTalk, she tells us about the Italian island of Sardinia and the fact that it has more than six times as many centenarians as the mainland and ten times as many as North America. Why? Well, it’s not a sunny disposition or a low-fat, gluten-free diet that keeps the islanders healthy — it’s their emphasis on close personal relationships and face-to-face interactions. Check out Ms. Pinker’s TedTalk for more of her thoughts on this topic and how to live to 100 or more.
One of the challenges is that during our working years we may want to get away from social interactions because we get enough of it during our weekdays at work, but in retirement we can easily become more socially isolated to the point where we actually crave more social interactions. In retirement we have to learn to make friends again…just like our first day of school. My partner Brian has a client who recently relocated from Massachusetts to Margaritaville in Florida for this exact same reason. Alan has reported back to Brian that he’s meeting friends and having the time of his life. That’s what it’s all about folks.
One surprising outcome of the Health and Retirement study is that friendships and maintaining them outside of the workplace is every bit as important as socking another $500 into your 401(k). According to Finke’s analysis of the survey. “The one relationship that does not provide greater life satisfaction in retirement is the relationship you have with your children. This is a bit surprising. The frequency of contact with your children is not a source of greater life satisfaction. Even the depth of the relationship is not a source of life satisfaction as it is with your spouse and as it is with your friends. I see a lot of retirees thinking they’re going to spend a lot more time with their children, and that relationship is going to deepen in retirement, when the reality is there’s not a whole lot of data to back that up.”
And speaking of children… What Can Dampen Happiness?
Since the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, there are things that panelists at the Morningstar conference see as potential speed bumps on the road to a happy retirement.
One of them is adult children that haven’t fully launched. “If a child begins to come back to the well too often for financial support, learning how to say no is very important. Stressing about your children’s wellbeing is a big happiness detour. Trust me, I know.
In more data from the Health and Retirement survey, we find that we’re not very good at imagining what’s going to make us happy in the future. Very often what we do is we look at what makes us happy today, but retirement is different. And what makes us happier is a new lifestyle, a new lifestyle that gives us the opportunities for social interaction, for living a more meaningful life. Going out to eat with friends, or going on vacations, or going to special events, these are things that actually provide true happiness in retirement.
Next in my Her Retirement Good Life pyramid after connections, comes your contributions. What do you want to contribute to society, your family, and your friends. I don’t call this work, because it’s more than work or volunteering, but it certainly can include one of both of these endeavors. As we plan for retirement happiness and fulfillment, you need to plan how you will continue contributing.
And finally, Financial Wellness is the base of my Good life pyramid because without financial wellness, retirement may not even be possible.
Financial wellness refers to having a happy, healthy, and relatively stress-free relationship with your finances. Typically, people who have financial wellness have the following four elements in place:
- Their income covers their expenses and allows them to stay on top of their debt repayments.
- They have savings for emergencies or financial upsets such as critical home repairs, unexpected medical bills, or job loss.
- They are working, saving and investing toward long-term financial goals.
- They have the freedom to make choices that allow them to enjoy their lives.
Financial wellness, like physical wellness, isn’t something you should ignore. Instead, it’s a critical concept for anyone who wants to be knowledgeable and confident about their finances, and in fact, financial wellness is so important that more than half of employers now offer financial wellness programs to their workers.
When I coach women, the main thing I want them to have is commitment to investing in themselves, and a commitment to building a retirement happiness plan that incorporates everything I’ve talked about so far in this podcast.
So how do we work on a happiness plan for retirement? Once way is to think of it as taking a new job. A very good job with great benefits. And approach it the same way. Do your research, ask more questions than you make statements and discover your answers.
I believe that having a happy retirement comes down to preparation and planning…whether that’s a plan for your money or your lifestyle. And I believe that when you do this planning you’ll know better, feel better, rest better, live better, and retire better. Heck, you’ll even look better too because you’ll be smiling ear to ear.
When you’re ready to Get Her Done, Her Retirement can help. If you decide to create your Good Life happiness plan on your own, remember our software can help too.
Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org anytime. I’m ready to help you get her done, happiness, retirement and the whole she-bang!