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4 Secrets to Happiness in Retirement


Retirement isn’t necessarily a happy time for people.

Just 60% of current retirees say that their retirement is “very satisfying,” according to research by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.  Nearly one in five retirees say that they are experiencing lower levels of overall well-being in retirement than they were before they retired, the study found. “Retirement affords increased opportunities for living the good life,” write Andrew Burr, Jonathan Santo and Dolores Pushkar in their study “Affective Well-Being in Retirement” published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. “But it is also a hallmark of the transition to the later stages of life and an introduction to the realities of aging.” And that doesn’t necessarily put a smile on your face.

So how can you plan for not only a secure retirement, but a happy one? The study offered some insight into what does – and doesn’t – make retirees happy.

Money: If you consider yourself better off than the Joneses, you just might be happier than them in retirement.  Your financial position — at least relative to other people your age — matters to your contentedness in retirement: Retirees who said that their financial situation was better than most other people they knew were also happier.

Concern for others and the earth: People who report high levels of concern for the welfare of others and for the earth tend to be happier in retirement, the study found. (Interestingly, the same correlation doesn’t hold for younger adults, the researchers note.) On a related note, those people who have what the researchers call “outward orientation” — they successfully engage with the world though friendships and activities — were much happier than those who had an “inward orientation” and thus were more isolated.

Health: The number and severity of illnesses you have in retirement, not surprisingly, predicts happiness. The people who suffered from chronic, severe illnesses like cancer or multiple sclerosis tended to be less happy than those who were in better health.

Keeping traditions: Upholding traditions and customs, like celebrating religious holidays or family milestones like birthdays regularly, can raise a retiree’s happiness. So can conforming to social norms, up to a point. The happiness benefits of conformity can be undermined by caring too much about what other people think, the study said. People with high levels of “enhancement,” which means they care a lot about status, power and what others thought of them, were less happy than those who had lower levels of “enhancement.”


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About Encore

  • Encore examines the changing nature of retirement, from new rules and guidelines for financial security to the shifting identities and priorities of today’s retirees. The blog also explores news that affects retirement, from the Wall Street Journal Digital Network and around the web. Lead bloggers are reporter Catey Hill and senior editor Jeremy Olshan. Other contributors include The Wall Street Journal’s retirement columnists Glenn Ruffenach and Anne Tergesen; the Director for the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, Alicia Munnell; and the Director of Research for Pinnacle Advisory Group, Michael Kitces, CFP.