Retirement can be the happiest period of a person’s life. Free time and independence from full-time work can have a profound impact on mental health, and studies have shown that retirees experience both an instant and enduring increase in their overall life satisfaction once they leave the workforce.
“We find an immediate impact of retirement on individuals’ happiness,” said Aspen Gorry, an assistant professor at Clemson University. “This satisfaction is also sustained over time.”
Gorry co-authored a 2015 National Bureau of Economic Research study on the link between retirement and life satisfaction, and said these results arise from lifestyle changes, although it’s not certain which changes affected satisfaction the most.
While there’s no sure-fire formula for the perfect retirement, a few research-proven tactics can help people have a fulfilling life after their career ends.
Here are five ways to experience joy in retirement.
Remain physically active
Health is a key part of anyone’s mental well-being, but keeping active becomes even more important in retirement.
According to a 2017 study of Social Security recipients by Nationwide, 66 percent of respondents who said they weren’t able to do the things they wanted during retirement pointed to health problems as a key reason why.
And staying in shape only gets tougher as you get older: By age 75, about half of all women and one-third of all men engage in no physical activity at all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, the CDC also stated that in addition to the physical benefits of working out, regular fitness activity can reduce anxiety and generate feelings of well-being. The CDC noted that walking and yard work or gardening are the most popular activities for those aged 65 and older.
Staying fit can help combat anxiety and improve your mood. Physical activity increased the odds of having a healthy aging process by 39 percent, according to a 2017 U.K. study published by Academic Press.
For retirees looking to stay in shape, the CDC offers a comprehensive guide of how much exercise is needed in order to obtain these health benefits, including recommendations for both time and intensity.
Work part time or volunteer
Quitting work cold turkey can be hard for some retirees, and many people look to part-time employment as a way to stay satisfied after their formal career ends. For some, it’s more of a necessity than a choice, especially if your savings aren’t sufficient to meet your day-to-day needs.
Take heart — working in retirement can actually provide mental health benefits. In a 2016 retirement survey by Merrill Lynch, 62 percent of respondents said they saw staying mentally active as a major benefit of working in retirement, and 42 percent said they valued the social connections. Only 31 percent of respondents said getting paid was a top benefit.
Still, having a little extra money can help make your post-work years much more enjoyable. In a 2017 study of life satisfaction during retirement, researchers with The American College of Financial Services, Eastern New Mexico University and Texas Tech University found — perhaps unsurprisingly — that spending more on leisure activities had a significant effect on retirees’ overall happiness.
Charity work also is popular for people who have ended their careers: The Merrill Lynch study found that while retirees made up just 31 percent of the population, they accounted for 45 percent of all volunteer hours worked. These hours seemed to provide personal satisfaction, too, as 81 percent of respondents said their motivations for giving back were to make a difference in the lives of others.
Cozy up to your partner
Having a spouse or companion matters more than ever during retirement, but only if your relationship is a healthy one.
According to the same 2017 life satisfaction study, people who got along with their spouse or partner tended to be significantly happier than those with a poor relationship. This correlation goes both ways, though, as retirees in tumultuous relationships were less happy than those who had no partner at all.
“If you have a high-quality spousal relationship, then this very much enhances your life satisfaction experience in retirement,” said Sandra Huston, a financial planning professor at Texas Tech University and one of the study’s authors. “If, on the other hand, you have a low-quality spousal relationship, then this has a strong effect of reducing your life satisfaction in retirement — even stronger than if you are single.”
Pick the right location
For some people, where you retire might be just as important as how you spend your time.
In “The State of US Health,” published in 2018, researchers ranked each state by its average life expectancy, judging each location by a number of risk factors. Hawaii (average life expectancy of 81.3 years) was the highest-ranking state, with California (80.9 years), Connecticut (80.8 years), Minnesota (80.8 years), and New York (80.5 years) rounding out the top five.
“You want to live somewhere where the infrastructure is in place for a healthy lifestyle,” said Ali Mokdad, a global health professor at the University of Washington and a study co-author. “So: ‘Are people around me smoking? Will I be safe walking down the street? Does the grocery store I go to have the fresh vegetables I need?’”
The research included information that is especially important for retirees moving to a new place, including access to quality health care, and — most importantly — the sort of “risk factors” that might prevent residents from living a healthy lifestyle.
To help make this decision easier, the AARP offers a livability index where users can look up their community or browse potential new metro areas (if interested in moving) by comparing aspects such as housing, transportation, environment, health, engagement and opportunity.
If you’re planning to move for retirement, you should keep your friends’ plans in mind, too. Spending time with friends plays a major role in a retiree’s happiness, according to Huston’s research. Her 2017 study also showed that interactions with friends actually meant more than interactions with children and other non-spousal family members.
Huston said these findings mean people may want to think twice before planning a big move around their family, especially if that means leaving their close friends behind.
“I think this has huge implications for thinking about and making decisions regarding where to retire,” she said. “It may not be the best idea, in terms of life satisfaction maximization, to uproot from friends and live by your kids to provide you the satisfaction you are imagining you are going to have in your retirement years.”
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