From reading the amount of literature devoted to it, you would think you will be happy in retirement if only you take care of the money part. However, after digging deeper and talking to hundreds of happy retirees, I have seen that neglecting the non-financial part of retirement can lead to more misery than inadequate financial planning.
Before I retired ten years ago, I was obsessed with finding out what it takes to be happy in retirement. Unfortunately, when I Googled “happy retirement,” I found charts showing how much money I needed, income calculators, how to sign up for Medicare, what mutual funds I should buy, what were the best dental plans, and other technical advice. That is not what I wanted.
I wanted information on how to keep a smile on my face, produce some endorphins, expand my horizons, and discover the edges of my comfort zone. I was much more interested in personal growth than I was in convenience and comfort. I wanted to have an extraordinary life, not just contentment and an optimized portfolio. I wanted to jump headlong into my new found freedom and relish life like I never had before. I was not interested in transitioning to some comfortable, pre-planned, homogenized, homeowner association approved, milquetoast existence.
I was lucky. I had planned well, didn’t try to outsmart the market, and I had arranged my life (and my mind) so that my needs were few. Once you have enough money to cover the basics plus a little cushion, happiness in retirement seems to be decoupled almost entirely from how much excess you have. A lot of what makes a happy retirement is the intangibles.
In Life Part 2 and Beyond, I wanted to drink life from a firehose and discover the things I had overlooked or sacrificed for my career. No, my retirement isn’t perfect, and there are, of course, challenges, but judging from the emails I receive from people looking to try something similar, I realize I have been lucky and made some good decisions.
Below is a random and non-exhaustive list of things that have worked for me.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zones
Once we get past our fears, begin trying scary new things and let go of our knee-jerk prejudices, magical things start to happen. Your brain starts to rewire itself, and it becomes more adaptable and healthier. Your self-confidence grows, and you will see new opportunities where once you only saw challenges. Your life becomes livelier, and your circle of friends grows. You may find yourself routinely doing exciting things that once seemed unimaginable. One day you wake up and realize that people who live in comfortable little boxes rarely have big dreams.
Put The Past In The Past
We have all met them, people, who, years after they left their careers behind, regale everyone they encounter with exploits from their working lives. It doesn’t matter that no one cares to hear about the witty thing they once said in a crew meeting or about the billion-dollar merger they once shepherded; they are going to tell you about it anyway. Don’t be that person. Enjoy your retirement and create some new stories.
Also, while you are at it, stop comparing yourself to other people. The time for using other people’s yardsticks to measure your success is over. Retirement is a time for resetting your goals and redefining your ideas of what success is. Take control, be your own boss and enjoy!
Learn To Travel Well
Traveling well isn’t just about getting from place to place and seeing the sights. It is about learning to get by on your wits, improvisation, and maximizing your experiences. Good travelers learn to travel light and know that every extra kilo of baggage they carry limits their options and zaps their energy supply. Travelers learn to stay calm in trying situations and realize that their best experiences arise from challenges. Traveling teaches you that, if you allow it, every day can be new and rewarding.
As Jack Kerouac said, “In the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” Travelers, even when they aren’t on the road, realize that our journeys are a metaphor for life.
Live Your Questions
We all have questions about retirement that only experience will answer. What am I now that I am retired? What if I attempted this or that. That looks fun; what does it feel like? We make our guesses and form our opinions, but we don’t know until we know. Some of us even convince ourselves that wondering is as good as knowing and decide that what we dream isn’t important or obtainable anymore. Retirement isn’t the time to play it safe and be satisfied with made-up answers.
Don’t get stuck. Go, experience life, and live your questions. Know, from personal discoveries, who you are (and who you are not.)
Reflect on your life and learn to appreciate what you have been given. Sure, not everything is perfect, but many things had to go right to put you where you are today. You are reading this, so you have been educated. The Internet is working, and the electricity is on. The odds are you have easy access to nutritious food and clean water. You probably aren’t worried about being eaten by a jaguar or trampled by a herd of water buffalo. Many random events had to conspire to give you the good things you have in your life. Don’t take the little things that life has bestowed upon you for granted.
Choose Your Own Path
Successful retirees are constant learners and use new knowledge to blaze new trails. We learned to walk; we went to school; we got a job; we raised a family; then we retired. Then what? Retirement has always been a goal, but far too many of us have no plan for when our happy day when it arrives.
As the Spanish poet Antonio Machado said, “Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking.”
Fail At Lots of Things
Related to choosing your own path, you should also be will to fail at a lot of things. Not sure what you want to do, or afraid that you will be bored after you retire? Test yourself. You don’t know what you are made of until you can be anything you want.
In his book “Designing Your Life” Stanford Professor Bill Burnett advocates having a bias toward action and trying the things that interest you. He says you should “fail fast and fail forward, into your next step.” If you tried something and discovered that you didn’t like it, the odds are that the failure helped you find something that leads toward other things that you might find interesting or rewarding.
You didn’t learn how to ride a bike by watching others or reading about bicycling theory. You got on the bike, and you pedaled. And you probably skinned some knees, and you probably crashed a lot. The idea is that you may fail at many things before you discover your passions.
The Luxury of Little
Happiness in retirement is more challenging if we are anchored by everything we accumulated over a lifetime. The belief that we need to maintain that garage full of possessions with us forever can dominate our thinking and limit our possibilities. What if we freed ourselves from the dusty, unused crap that dominates our cupboards and our lives? What if we emptied the garage and instead of sending it out of sight to an expensive storeroom, we sold, gave away, or threw away everything that no longer adds value to our lives.
Like experienced travelers, the less we carry, the less we worry.
I have moved boxes from one house to another without ever having opened them. Who does that serve? As the saying goes, “The things you things own you end up owning you.”
Rethink Major Purchases
Instead of lightening the load, what if we intentionally tried to keep things light in the first place? I used to eye bigger houses, fancy cars, or even new golf clubs and think, “One day, I will have that, and it will make me happy.” When I was working, and money was simpler to come by than spare time, I would far too often indulge myself by buying something simply because “I deserved it.”. But you know how it goes? Once I had inflated my lifestyle and adapted to my new purchases, I started looking for the next shiny thing to buy.
Find A New Tribe And Get Social
According to Marta Zaraska, author of “Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100”, after retirement, we have to be particularly careful to stay socially engaged and find purpose. Research shows that volunteering after retirement, for instance, can mean lower blood pressure and less inflammation. Her research shows that retiring “to the couch” can mean a life that’s not only less full but also shorter.
Retirement is an excellent opportunity to grow your circle of friends. It is also an opportunity to cull some toxic relationships that distract you want to accomplish. Again, it is all related. For most of us, making new friends requires getting out of your comfort zones and making an effort.
Just Do It
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu observed that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” but, as everyone knows, it is that first step that is the hardest. Take the first step. Then, since you are outside already, take the step after that.
When I wanted to start running again, the only commitment I made to myself was putting on my running clothes a few times a week. Given that I would feel pretty ridiculous putting on my running clothes and not going out for a run, I committed to running for only four minutes. Knowing that I had put on my running clothes and had already run for four minutes, I committed to running a little further. It was just the next easy step.
Now I am running at least 5k four times a week. But the only firm commitment I have made to my running habit is putting on my shoes.
Tiny commitments can go a long way toward accomplishing big goals. To be more social, just commit to saying hello to an interesting new person every day. To learn a new recipe, buy a few of the necessary ingredients next time you are at the store. You don’t have to tackle the closets and the garage; start with one drawer and then the next.
To be happy in retirement, you still need to accomplish some things.
Adjust Your Attitude About Aging
Aging doesn’t mean that we have to accept aging-related problems. For most of our lives, we heard the expression, “Getting old is hell,” but science is rapidly advancing, and we no longer have to accept that getting older equals suffering. Through diet and exercise, we can not only extend the length of our lives but, more importantly, we can have longer healthspans.
Harvard Professor David A. Sinclair, author of the book “Lifespan” says, “I believe that aging is a disease. I believe it is treatable. I believe we can treat it within our lifetimes. And in doing so, I believe, everything we know about human health will be fundamentally changed.”
Learn To Embrace Your Mortality
But no matter your attitude about aging, there is no part of our life more certain than death. Bear that in mind and use that thought to appreciate the time that we do have and use it as motivation for living a fuller retirement. Being happy in retirement comes not through denying our mortality but accepting it as a motivator to not waste our time. Stop saying “tomorrow I will” and begin now.
Don’t waste your retirement. Get out there, leverage your knowledge and live your dreams.