Five Things Happy Retirees Have in Common

June 15, 2024

The transition into retirement can be difficult, when work no longer provides a sense of identity and accomplishment. The change can be startling, especially when most people don’t switch to part-time schedules on the way out of their full-time careers. “We don’t really shift our focus to, how do we live well in this extra time,” says M.T. Connolly, author of The Measure of Our Age. “A lot of people get happier as they age because they start to focus more on the meaningful parts of existence and emotional meaning and positive experience as finitude gets more real.”

While most people account for how much money they’ll need when it’s time to retire, there are many other factors to consider when planning for a fulfilling retirement. Here are five things that happy retirees have in common. 

Feeling a Sense of Purpose

There are several approaches to staying active and finding purpose after leaving a career. “Your retirement schedule should be less stressful and demanding than your previous one, but we don’t need to avoid all forms of work or service,” says Kevin Coleman, a family therapist. “Find some work that you take pride in and find intrinsically meaningful.”

Many retirees, for example, choose encore careers, where instead of working for the money, they are working for the enjoyment of the job. Besides finding a new job, there are other simple ways to feel purposeful during retirement. Purpose can be found by making oneself useful, such as by volunteering in the community, joining a community board, or participating in an enjoyable activity with a group, like a gardening club. Many retirees enjoy volunteering to take care of their grandchildren or helping their older friends with caregiving duties. Finding purpose doesn’t need to be complicated and can be achieved through simple acts of showing up for others and being open to new connections.

Finding Ways to Connect

As nearly 25% of those who are 65 and older feel socially isolated, finding ways to connect are important for mental and physical well-being during retirement. One way to connect is through storytelling. Sharing our stories with the people we care about strengthens our social bonds and helps us feel less lonely. Storytelling also helps people pass down their family memories, especially when we share stories with younger relatives, such as with grandchildren. It’s a nice feeling to think that your memories will live on through your loved ones. “The models we have for aging are largely either isolation or age segregation,” says Connolly. “There’s a loss when we don’t have intergenerational contact. It impoverishes our social environment.” Perhaps the best thing to do as you age is to cherish and foster these relationships with younger relatives.

Making Plans for the Retirement Years 

Budgeting for your retirement is crucial to happiness during the retirement years. Successful retirement planning includes paying off debts prior to retiring and saving for unexpected expenses or emergency funds in addition to a standard monthly budget. According to a survey conducted by Wes Moss, author of You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think, the happiest retirees are those who have between $700,000 and $1.25 million in liquid retirement savings, such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and cash. His research also found that retirees within five years or less of paying off their mortgages are four times more likely to be happy in retirement. This is because the mortgage payment is typically the most significant expense, so those retirees who own their homes feel safer and more at peace once they no longer have that bill. Plus, not having a mortgage payment due every month dramatically lowers their monthly expenses and can help retirement savings last longer.

Many retirees overlook retirement planning beyond their finances. New research from the Stanford Center on Longevity shows that where someone lives in retirement can affect their longevity. Researchers found that people over the age of 60 who lived in upper-income areas lived longer due to having more access to health and social services. They also credited strong social networks and a sense of community to living longer. So perhaps there’s a city or area that you’ve always dreamed of living in or you’d like to live closer to family. Think about where you want to live when you’re done working and then plan for it before you retire.

Setting New Retirement Goals

Beyond saving up and thinking about where you want to spend your retirement years, setting goals for once you’re in retirement is equally as important. “Research suggests that those who think about and plan for what they will do in retirement in advance are far happier and fulfilled once they actually retire and begin living this phase of life,” says financial planner Chris Urban. “Sometimes it is helpful for people to write down what they plan to do every day of the week, what goals they have, who they want to spend time with and what they want to do with them.”

While your goals before retirement were likely centered around career and finances, it will be important to set different kinds of goals once you’re retired. Having goals doesn’t become less important just because you’re no longer working. “If you really want something, maybe a new romance, then take a concrete step in that direction,” says psychiatry professor Ahron Friedberg. “Don’t ever tell yourself that it’s too late.

Prioritizing Both Physical and Mental Health

With a full-time career no longer on the schedule, cooking healthy meals at home, getting enough sleep, and finding ways to be more physically active everyday will be easier. It will also be important to keep up on medical appointments and preventive therapies. A study conducted by Harvard shows that even people who become more physically active and adopt better diets later in their lives still lower their risks of cardiovascular illnesses and mortality more than their peers who do not. “Not all core pursuits include physical activity or exercise, but many of the top ones do. I refer to them as the ‘ings’—walking, running, biking, hiking, jogging, swimming, dancing, etc.,” says Moss. “These all involve some sort of motion and exercise.” The most sustainable form of physical activity will be doing more of those activities that you enjoy and that move your body.

In addition to caring for your physical health, focusing on your mental health is just as important, especially as you age. According to Harvard’s Medical newsletter, challenging your brain with mental exercise activates processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication between them. So choose something new or that you’ve always wanted to learn. Take a course at a community college or learn how to play an instrument or speak a language. If you enjoy reading, visit the library every week for a new book. If you enjoy helping others learn, then looking into a part-time tutoring job or volunteering to tutor is a way to challenge yourself mentally, connect socially, and feel a sense of purpose.

Prioritizing your overall health includes asking for help when you need it. If you reach a point where you need assistance with daily tasks and activities, then you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help early. Whether it’s family members or caregiving services, finding help with the things that are becoming difficult for you is the best way to maintain your independence for as long as you can so that you may continue to thrive during your retirement years.

It’s important to think about how you want to spend your retirement before it’s here. While many people only consider their finances when they begin to plan for the future, there are other factors, including how you’ll spend your time, where you’ll live, and your overall health that will impact the quality of your retirement years. With, storing all of your financial information, medical records, and planning documents in one easy-to-review place will help you plan for what can be the best years of your life.

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