A long and happy retirement takes more than just money. Here are seven things happy retirees do – besides dutifully saving the money they’ll need to quit the 9-to-5 grind.
Retirement planning is all about numbers. It centers around one question: Do my financial assets — pension, 401(k)s/IRAs, Social Security, property, sale of a business, etc. — provide enough income to fund my desired retirement lifestyle?
At least, that is what most people think. But ask any retiree, and they will likely tell you that it is only half the story. You’ll need enough money to get by, of course, but you don’t have to be super wealthy to be happy. In fact, life satisfaction tops out at an annual salary of $95,000, on average, according to a study by psychologists from Purdue University. Enough money to never have to worry about going broke or paying for medical care is important. But money is not the only or even the most important piece of a fulfilling retirement.
So, once you have a retirement plan in place, it is essential to focus on all those things money cannot buy. Here are seven happy habits that studies show can improve life satisfaction in retirement.
Habit No. 1: Happy retirees work at staying healthy
What good is money if you cannot enjoy it? The majority of retirees say that good health is the most important ingredient for a happy retirement, according to a Merrill Lynch/Age Wave report. Studies show that exercise and a healthy diet can reduce the risk of developing certain health conditions, increase energy levels, boost your immune system, and improve your mood.
Tips to take away: It’s never too late to get moving and eat right. Research shows even those who become physically active and adopt a healthy diet late in life dramatically lower the risk of cardiovascular illnesses and have a lower death rate than their peers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends about 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
Need some ideas? The National Institute on Aging has all sorts of great information on how to get started with an exercise program and to stick with it. Even a simple routine, such as walking 7,500 steps or more daily, can provide immense physical and mental health benefits. Regular walks are associated with lower blood pressure and reduced risk of dementia, as well as increased longevity and creativity. No wonder walking has been favorite pastime for many influential thinkers throughout history, including Albert Einstein, who walked at least 3 miles every day. (See Habit No. 7 below for one paw-some way to start a daily walking habit.)
Habit No. 2: They foster strong social connections
Hobbies and activities with people we like can boost life satisfaction, especially when our social networks shrink after leaving the workforce. Happier retirees were found to be those with more social interactions, according to one Gallup poll.
Further, social isolation has been linked to higher rates of heart disease and stroke, increased risk of dementia, and greater incidence of depression and anxiety. Believe it or not, a low level of social interaction is just as unhealthy as smoking, obesity, alcohol abuse or physical inactivity.
Tips to take away: You can find many ways to stay connected by participating in social events at your local community center or library. For example, game nights, weekly outings to a movie or museum and book clubs. One positive outcome from the COVID-19 pandemic is that we’ve all found ways to socialize, even from a distance. For those who live in a secluded area or have unreliable transportation, there are many easy-to-use tech tools to help ward off the feelings of social isolation. Zoom and Google Hangouts are great for video chats, and you can even watch TV “together” by using Netflix Party.
Habit No. 3: Happy retirees find a clear sense of purpose
The notion of retirement as time spent golfing, strolling the beach or reading classic novels is outdated. While fun, the stereotypical leisure activities associated with retirement don’t provide a sense of purpose or meaning, which is what many retirees say is important.
One place retirees find a sense of purpose is work. In a Gallup poll, nearly 3 in 4 Americans said they plan to work beyond traditional retirement age, with the majority planning to do so because they “want to,” not because they “have to.”
Retirees also gain meaningfulness and other benefits from volunteering. The same Age Wave/Merrill Lynch study referenced above found that retirees were three times more likely to say “helping people in need” brings them happiness in retirement than “spending money on themselves.” Further, those who donated money or volunteered felt a stronger sense of purpose and self-esteem and were happier and healthier.
Tips to take away: Now that you know volunteering is one of the most fulfilling retirement activities, how do you get started? There is likely a wide array of charities and non-profit groups right in your community that can be found with a simple search online. For example, VolunteerMatch.org lists volunteer opportunities that are searchable by city and category, such as animals, arts and culture, health, literacy and seniors. The service also lets you create a profile detailing your background and skills so that non-profits can match you to their specific needs.
Habit No. 4: They never stop learning
Experts believe that ongoing education and learning new things may help keep you mentally sharp simply by getting you in the habit of staying mentally active. Exercising your brain may help prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia.
“Challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them,” according to Harvard Medical School’s Healthbeat newsletter.
Tips to take away: Exercising your brain isn’t all that different from exercising your body. It requires consistent stimulation. That doesn’t just mean working on crossword puzzles every day (although one study found that people with dementia who did crossword puzzles delayed the onset of accelerated memory decline by 2.54 years). Choose something that is new and that you enjoy. Consider taking a class from a senior center or community college, learning to play an instrument or making it a habit to regularly visit the library and pick up a new book. Or, you could take free college courses from many top universities, such as Yale and Stanford, through an online learning platform like Coursera.
The National Institute on Aging also provides a list of activities that can help improve the health of older adults, ranging from visiting local museums to joining a book or film club.
Habit No. 5: They train their brains to be optimistic
A glass-half-full attitude may pay huge dividends, including lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic ailments and a longer life. In an article published in JAMA Network, researchers found that participants who rated highly in optimism were much less likely to suffer from heart attacks or other cardiovascular events and had a lower mortality rate than their pessimistic counterparts.
Another research article, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), indicates that people with higher levels of optimism lived longer. Optimistic women had a 50% greater chance of surviving to age 85, and optimistic men had a 70% greater chance.
Tips to take away: Believe it or not, optimism is a trait that anyone can develop. Studies have shown people are able to adopt a more optimistic mindset with very simple, low-cost exercises, starting with consciously reframing every situation in a positive light. Over time, you essentially can rewire your brain to think positively. Since negativity is contagious, it is also important to surround yourself with optimistic people and consider a break from the news. Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard Medical School explains, “Just as some diseases are contagious, we’ve found that many emotions can pulse through social networks.” For more on how to cultivate optimism in your life, check out the six specific tips in this report.
Habit No. 6: Happy retirees practice mindful gratitude
Studies by psychologists Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough show that people who counted their blessings had a more positive outlook on life, exercised more, reported fewer symptoms of illness and were more likely to help others. This is further supported in work by psychologist Nathaniel Lambert that finds stronger feelings of gratitude are associated with lower materialism. Gratitude enhances people’s satisfaction with life while reducing their desire to buy stuff.
Tips to take away: As with optimism, gratitude also can be mastered with practice. One of the most effective ways to cultivate gratitude is by writing in a journal. Take a few minutes each day to write down a few things that you are grateful for; they can be as big as a professional accomplishment or as small as your morning cup of coffee. If you have a hard time thinking about what to write, consider buying a gratitude journal, like the The 5-Minute Gratitude Journal, which is a daily journal created by health psychologist and coach Sophia Godkin, that invites you to acknowledge the good people and events that came into your life each day.
Psychological research suggests that putting feelings of gratitude to paper can provide both mental and physical benefits, such as greater self-esteem, better sleep and improved heart health.
Habit No. 7: They have a furry or feathered friend
It turns out that Fido can provide more benefits to you than grabbing the newspaper. Older dog owners who walked their dogs at least once a day got 20% more physical activity than people without dogs and spent 30 fewer minutes a day being sedentary, on average, according to a study published in The Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Research has also indicated that dogs help soothe those suffering from cognitive decline, and the physical and mental health benefits of owning a dog can boost the longevity of the owner.
If a dog is out of the question, cats and birds are lower-maintenance possibilities. Or you could even consider pursuing home visits from a therapy dog. Therapy Dogs International has a home visit program with over 20,000 volunteer dog/handler teams registered throughout all 50 states.
Tips to take away: The companionship of a furry friend can be as beneficial as that of another human being. Finding your next best friend is as easy as visiting your local animal shelter. But if you don’t want or are unable to take on the responsibility of owning a dog full time, becoming a foster parent is a good option. You can usually foster a dog from an animal rescue center from a few days or weeks to a month or more, and ultimately help a dog in need find a caring family. And, no, breed does not matter. Small, large, slobbery or smelly, they’re all good dogs.
Retirement is major transition made up of many financial as well as life decisions. This is why it is important to work with a financial adviser to create a retirement plan as early as possible. That way you can spend more time focusing on everything else that equally matters.