By FPA member, Joseph R. Hearn
Last Updated: September 10, 2012
When talking with clients about retirement, I almost always hear some variation of the following sentence: “I just want to be happy.” The more I hear the “H” word, the more I ask myself “What actually makes us happy?”
There’s certainly no single answer to that question. In fact, the answers seem limitless. Not only that, but we don’t seem particularly good at knowing what will make us happy. The things we choose—say, a new car for example—often provide a short-term, fleeting sense of pleasure rather than a deep, abiding sense of happiness. So what can we do to improve our odds of a happy retirement?
Happiness Principle #1: Balance Pleasures and Comforts
In his book The Joyless Economy, Tibor Scitovsky argues that there are two kinds of potential experiences in life: pleasures and comforts. By pleasures he means risks or pursuits. These are the new experiences in our lives. They get us out of our comfort zone and stimulate our minds. Pleasures include things like meeting someone new, exploring an unfamiliar city, ordering something new off the menu or learning a new hobby or skill.
Then there are comforts. These are the things that we know and are used to. They’re safe and predictable. They provide stability. Comforts are things like our home, family, longtime friends and the job we’ve had for years.
Every day, we’re presented with choices between pleasures and comforts. Left to our own devices we tend to choose comforts. In fact, many times we’re so reluctant to embrace the unknown that we will choose unhappiness over uncertainty. We’ll persist in a bad job or a bad relationship, simply because we’re afraid of what would happen if we didn’t.
Not surprisingly, Scitovsky argues that finding balance between pleasures and comforts will ultimately make us happier than if we have a lopsided tendency toward only one.
Choosing the safe, predictable path (comforts) too often during retirement will likely leave you feeling unchallenged, uninspired and bored. Always taking the risk and stepping outside your comfort zone (pleasures), however, can leave you feeling stressed and unmoored. The key is to find a balance.
Happiness Principle #2: Focus on Your Health
Physical, mental and emotional health are key ingredients to happiness. Unfortunately, too many people are entering retirement stuck in the rut of an unhealthy lifestyle. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. High cholesterol and high blood pressure are common.Diabetes is the fastest growing disease in the country.
Not all sickness is preventable, of course, but there is a huge correlation between certain lifestyle choices and our susceptibility to certain diseases. This is evident when you examine the ailments we struggle with most. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the three leading causes of death in 1900 were influenza, diarrhea and tuberculosis. Today the top three are heart disease, cancer and stroke. All three are heavily dependent on things like diet, exercise and whether or not you smoke.
Entering retirement healthy and in shape improves your odds of leading an active lifestyle. It also means that you will likely be able to live independently and free from the physical pain that accompanies many diseases. Not only that, but remaining physically healthy can help you remain financially healthy, because your medical costs will be kept to a minimum. All of those things can contribute to a happier retirement.
Happiness Principle #3: Financial Security
While money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness, neither does poverty. It can be stressful to always be worrying about how to make ends meet. And while you don’t necessarily need a sailboat or a vineyard to have a happy retirement, it would be nice to be able to take a trip with your spouse or have dinner with friends without constantly having to pinch pennies. Work closely with a trusted adviser to make sure you have enough set aside to fund the lifestyle you want to live.
Remember, though, that retirement is more than just a math problem. It takes more than a bulging bank account to be happy. But if you save enough, stay healthy and find purpose in your daily activities, you will be well on your way to a happy, fulfilling retirement.
FPA member Joseph R. Hearn is the Vice President at Teckmeyer Financial and author of the books If Something Happens to Me and The Bell Lap: The 8 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid as You Approach Retirement.