Happiness, it’s been said, is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it will evade you. The implication is that by actively pursuing a happy state you reduce your chances of achieving it. That may very well be true in a philosophical sense. But when it comes to retirement at least, new research suggests that there may be specific steps you can take to enjoy a more rewarding post-career life.
In a paper titled “Spending, Relationship Quality, and Life Satisfaction in Retirement,” researchers from The American College, Eastern New Mexico University and Texas Tech looked at financial, lifestyle and other data on 1,526 retirees to see what makes for a more satisfying retirement. I wouldn’t call this paper a breezy read, chock-a-block as it is with acronyms like SWLS (Satisfaction With Life Scale) and SWB (Subjective Well-being), not to mention sentences like “households maximize well-being or utility (U) by producing and consuming commodities (Z).”
If you cut through the academic jargon, however, you’ll find that when it comes to having a more enjoyable retirement, there are three main ways you may be able to tilt the odds in your favor.
1. Spend more money on having fun. When the researchers examined how retirees spend their money—on everything from cars and housing-related items to food and insurance—they found that spending in only one category tended to predict retirement satisfaction: leisure, or “experiential commodities” as they say, which includes such activities as dining out, travel, entertainment and hobbies.
It’s hardly shocking that splurging on dinner at a nice restaurant will leave you feeling more warm and fuzzy inside than forking over the same sum to have your car’s oil changed and the tires balanced and rotated. But don’t put the bump in satisfaction down to mere hedonism. Rather, it’s because shelling out dough for leisure activities—or what one of the study’s co-author’s, The American College’s Michael Finke described to me as as “social spending“—takes us outside of ourselves and keep us more engaged with the world.
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You don’t want to overdo it, though, and have an initially blissful retirement devolve into a survival test in your dotage because you spent too freely on leisure pursuits early on. But to the extent you have discretionary funds built into your retirement budget, don’t be afraid to target them to activities that give you the biggest happiness bang for your buck.
2. Nurture your personal relationships. How close you feel to family and friends can also affect how much you enjoy retirement. For example, the researchers found that when it comes to relationships, how well you and your spouse get along had the biggest impact—even larger than that of leisure spending—with retirees who described their relations with their spouse as being very or quite close likely to experience higher levels of life satisfaction than those with a poor spousal relationship. Which stands to reason. After all, if you’re married, your spouse is the person you’re probably going to be spending the most time with, and if that relationship is sour, it will likely be harder for you to truly savor other aspects of retirement.
Surprisingly, the researchers found “no evidence to support children contributing to retirees life satisfaction,” although having close relationships with friends and, to a lesser extent, other family members does.
I have to admit I did a double-take on this assertion about children, as it seems inconsistent with the importance most parents place on their relationships with their kids. But the issue here isn’t how much we love or value our offspring, but whose company is likely to provide us with the most enjoyment in retirement. “And it appears that the people we get the most satisfaction from spending time with,” says Finke, “may not be our children, but the friends with whom we have more in common and share similar interests.”
In any case, relationships, not mention physical intimacy, can play a major role in how much you enjoy life after work. So as you near and enter retirement, you’ll want to be sure to evaluate your relationships with the people who matter to you and try to sustain and improve those relationships (and if possible cultivate new ones) as you age.
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3. Do all you can to maintain your health. You can also improve your shot at a happy retirement by staying healthy. Indeed, retirees who reported they were in good, very good or excellent health were more likely to feel satisfied with their retirement than those with poor or even fair health. What’s more, health status was even more likely to lead to retirement satisfaction than good relationships or leisure spending.
Other research bears out just how much good health is linked to retirement happiness. According to a recent Nationwide Retirement Institute survey, a third of recent retirees say that health problems are interfering with their retirement.
Of course, you don’t have absolute control over your health. But there are a number of things you can do to reduce the chance that an illness or other physical problems will cast a pall on your post-career life, including staying active and exercising regularly, getting regular checkups and receiving proper treatment for any ongoing health issues. Aside from enhancing your enjoyment of retirement in general, looking after your physical well-being may also help you feel more financially secure by possibly lowering the amount of money you’ll have to shell out for health care, which is one of retirees’ largest expenses.
There are other ways aside from those mentioned in this paper that may also be able to help you can improve your prospects for a more satisfying retirement. For example, a 2015 Merrill Lynch report found that seniors who give back in some way, such as by volunteering, were more likely to say they were happy and had a strong sense of purpose in their lives. And although converting a portion of one’s savings to an immediate annuity certainly isn’t the right move for everyone, research shows that retirees who receive guaranteed payments from a pension or an annuity tended to have higher levels of retirement satisfaction than those without such income.
But if you’re looking for effective ways to improve your prospects for a happier and more satisfying post-career life, the three suggestions detailed above are a good place to start.