Some people who dreamed they’d leave all their worries behind once they quit working are finding retirement isn’t quite as blissful as they dreamed it would be. Fewer than half of current retirees describe their retirement as “very satisfying,” the Employee Benefits Research Institute found, down from 61% in 1998.
Retirement satisfaction is falling across the board. Both wealthy and not-so-wealthy retirees were less happy in retirement than their counterparts in the late ’90s, though the richer retirees were more satisfied overall. Money, it seems, isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to enjoying a happy retirement. Even the rich can find themselves with a frown on their faces if they make planning mistakes.
It’s not clear what’s causing the dip in retirement satisfaction, but part of the problem might be the nature of retirement is changing, and it’s taking people’s expectations a while to catch up. Retirements can stretch for decades, health care costs are rising, and people are more likely to want (or need) to keep a foot in the working world rather than transitioning to a life of full-time leisure.
“What we’re seeing is that retirement, the word itself is changing,” Andrew Rafal, president and founder of Bayntree Wealth Advisors and co-author of Climbing the Retirement Mountain and Getting Safely Down the Other Side, said in a phone interview with The Cheat Sheet. “We look at someone that’s maybe worked in the corporate world, and their purpose over 30 or 40 years was their job. They did very well at it. [Now] it’s trying to envision what these next 30 years could look like.”
That transition from worker bee to chilled-out retiree isn’t always simple. Although retirement boosts happiness overall, some retirees are happier than others. What separates the happy from the miserable?
The people who have the biggest smiles on their faces in retirement are clued in to the following 10 secrets about retirement.
1. Don’t assume it’s all about the money
It’s a cliché to say money can’t buy happiness, but it’s true when it comes to retirement. A big bank account balance won’t translate into stress-free golden years if there are other problems lurking below the surface.
“For many, the monetary side isn’t going to make them happy,” Rafal said. “People that have a lot more zeros than others, we find sometimes they’re not as happy.”
Sometimes, the problems are financial, such as debt. In other cases, they’re personal. Whatever the cause, you shouldn’t assume money alone will make the other problems in your life disappear. Retirement planning involves running the numbers. But it also requires looking inward to think about what’s going to make you happy in the next phase of your life.
2. But don’t ignore your finances
Money might not be everything, but a steady source of retirement income can go a long way to reducing retirement stress. People with consistent sources of retirement income, such as a pension, were more financially confident and less likely to feel pressure to cut spending than those who relied on money from their investments, a Towers Watson survey found.
But even if you don’t have a pension, there are ways to turn your savings into a steady income stream if you work with an experienced financial adviser. Figuring out the financial piece means you can save your energy for things you really enjoy.
3. Stay healthy
The better a person’s health, the more likely they were to say they were having a happy retirement, EBRI found. Eighty percent of people who rated their health as excellent said they were very satisfied with their retirement, compared to 26% who said their health was poor.
“When you’ve got a potential 30 or 40 years of living in retirement, you want to be able to make sure that you’re healthy and be able to enjoy it,” Rafal said.
The good news is for many retirement offers an opportunity to refocus on health and wellness, Rafal added. People have more time to focus on nutrition, exercise, and living a healthy lifestyle.
4. Find your purpose
Retirement frees up your schedule, and for some people all that unstructured time is a little overwhelming. If you’re not careful, an absence of purpose can lead to boredom, depression, and relationship stress. That can be especially true for people whose identity was closely tied to their career.
You can avoid this source or retirement unhappiness by thinking about what your retirement purpose will be before you stop working. That might mean setting yourself up to start a business, looking into volunteer work, or even turning a spare bedroom into an artist’s studio.
“It can’t be cold turkey. You’ve got to really envision the things that will make you happy, what they will be,” Rafal said. “There’s only so much golf you can play.”
5. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses
Pressure to keep up with your friends and neighbors when it comes to vacations, home improvements, and hobbies can derail your retirement finances — and your happiness.
“I think the one thing a retiree has to be careful of is to not keep up with that proverbial Joneses,” Rafal said.
If you’re running in a social circle where people tend to live large and you can’t — or don’t want to — deal with the pressure to keep up, you might need to refocus your energy elsewhere.
6. Give back
Many people plan to dedicate time and money in retirement to giving back. That generosity doesn’t just benefit those you help, but it also can increase your own sense of well-being.
Seven out of 10 retirees say giving back increases their retirement happiness, a Merrill Lynch and Age Wave survey found. “Retirees who give are more likely than those who don’t to say they have a strong sense of purpose, high self-esteem, and are happy and healthy,” the report noted.
Volunteer work and other charitable activities are also a great way to find new purpose and meet new people (which ties in directly with our next secret to retirement happiness).
7. Stay social
Not having much of a social life can be bad for your health. Studies have linked low social interaction with a greater risk of heart disease and an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia, according to a Merrill Lynch.
To stay happy and healthy in retirement, make time to develop new relationships and nurture existing one, especially if your social life previously revolved around work.
“The happiest [people] keep their friends and family, that connection around,” Rafal said. “Those that don’t have as much of that connection, you can tell that it’s definitely wearing on them.”
8. Communicate with your spouse
Even couples with rock-solid relationships can find the transition to retirement is a bumpy road. Suddenly, the person you’re used to spending evenings and weekends with is around all the time. Even if you’re looking forward to getting to know your partner again, you might need to set some boundaries.
Sometimes, that means one person goes back to work, even part time. It also might mean sitting down and having a conversation about what you both really expect from retirement, so neither person ends up unhappy or resentful.
“Understanding what each partner expects of the other can help ward off disappointments,” Rob Pascale and Dr. Louis H. Primavera, co-authors of the The Retirement Maze: What You Should Know Before and After You Retire, said in an email interview with the Huffington Post. “For example, discuss joint and individual activities, and keep a calendar of these so there are no surprises. … In running the household, some husbands might not realize they are expected to help with chores when they retire. Talking that out explicitly eliminates any ambiguity.”
9. Think twice before relocating
Picking the wrong place to move is one of the biggest sources of retirement unhappiness, Rafal said.
“I think if somebody chooses the wrong geographic location, that can really weigh on you,” Rafal said. “We’ve definitely had people that have chosen to move [to Arizona], and they’re just unhappy, so they’ve then got to figure out where they are going to be happy.”
Choosing a location because it has a low cost of living or you love to vacation there without considering other factors — such as whether you’ll enjoy the community or have friends or family nearby — can be a mistake that’s expensive to undo. In fact, pulling up stakes without considering all the consequences is one of people’s biggest retirement regrets.
10. Be satisfied with what you have
Your retirement nest egg might not be quite as large as you hoped it would be, but that doesn’t have to mean spending your golden years in misery. Assuming you have enough to live comfortably, there are plenty of ways to enjoy your retirement, even if you can’t afford all the luxuries you might have dreamed of.
“I think it’s coming to terms with really what makes you happy,” Rafal said. “For a lot of individuals, they don’t need a ton of money. They live well within their means [while understanding they] can’t go on three cruises a year.”
The key is to refocus on what you do have, whether it’s your health, family, or hobbies, and not stress too much about what you might lack. Once you come to terms with your own retirement reality, you’ll be on your way to retirement happiness.