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Are You Happy Now?

So, what ultimately leads to happiness and contentment during retirement, and how can we increase our odds of finding retirement bliss?  Isn't our quest for this the reason we spend so much time worrying about, saving, and investing our "number?" Isn't happiness what we are trying to insure with our various policies since insurance, all insurance really, is about insuring that we do not end up old, broke, and unhappy?  We are all probably familiar with individuals who we believe had either good, or bad retirements.  So, what differentiated the experiences that those folks had in their  retirement years?  If there is a formula to follow, a certain amount of money to be saved, or a key to future happiness, I want to know about it.  As I was bouncing these questions around, I was again reminded of a few individuals whom I knew well, and observed closely, while they were in their retirements. 

My grandfather died in 1967 at 88, and save for a period during a nasty divorce during his 85th year, he appeared to have had a very happy and fulfilling retirement.  He and his second wife, Miss Madie, eventually disagreed about a great many things, and when she sent him to the store for Clabber Girl baking powder and he came home with Arm and Hammer well, that was the final straw.  So, they decided to go their separate ways, and Jesse lived out his final years alone, in the little frame house where he had lived most of his life.  At his death he owned a 50 acre farm and that little house, a green 1950 Plymouth, and probably had less than $1,000 in the bank.  He had existed for years on his Social Security check and the little that was his share of the income from his farm.  He lived very frugally, yet he was happy!  I never heard him wish for a thing, and to my knowledge he had everything that he needed to feel fulfilled, although I seriously doubt that he ever contemplated whether he was fulfilled or not.

Both my mother and father died in 1995.  She was nearly 80 and he nearly 83.  Mom and Dad never traveled outside of the United States, never went on a cruise, never belonged to a country club, never set foot on a golf course, and never owned a cell phone or personal computer.  Amazing, isn't it?  They had accumulated a few more assets by their deaths than had my grandfather, though no one ever mistook them for being wealthy.  They did have a wide circle of friends, were good to their children, smiled easily, and from all indications had a wonderful retirement.

Mr. Stokes Brown, mentioned in an earlier article, had a great deal of money.  He and Sadie traveled widely and never wanted for anything.  They were generous with their friends and family and lived in a gorgeous, old, historic home that was beautifully furnished.  They had the resources to live in whatever fashion they chose and were never mistaken for anything other than the well-to-do.

These three examples offer three contrasting views of what retirement can look like in financial terms.  Yet, it appears that in each of these cases the individuals were very happy as retirees.  Granted, the absence of some assets, and a certain measure of health, will certainly degrade one's retirement experience; but many studies have shown that the presence of money and health, absent other factors, will not produce happiness and contentment.  So, as I was casting about, trying to determine what those other factors may be, I came across a book that presented some pertinent observations.  That book, Aging Well, by George E. Vaillant, M.D., is based on a study of behavior that began with Harvard sophomores in 1938 and is the oldest, most thorough study of aging ever undertaken.  Eventually the study grew to include over 800 subjects, both men and women from demographics other than those from Harvard.  These subjects were interviewed at regular intervals and followed for more than 50 years.  The findings give us a pretty good picture of what factors lead to successful aging, and thus, to successful retirements.  Dr. Vaillant eventually categorized the study subjects into two categories: the "happy-well" or the "sad-sick."  As you might imagine the "sad-sick" did not find not find retirement very satisfying while the opposite was the case for the "happy-well."  The study identified six factors that, if present at age 50, have a great deal to do with whether we will make it to 80 and in which category we may find ourselves.  After a bit of contemplation, it occurred to me that the nature of my retirement years will be as dependent on these factors as it is on the size of my nest egg.  These factors are:

  1. Having a warm, successful marriage -- Be sweet to your sweetie; he/she is vital to your successful aging!
  2. Not smoking heavily -- No surprise here.
  3. Not abusing alcohol -- Nor one here either!
  4. Getting ample exercise -- Back to the use it or lose it theory.
  5. Not being overweight -- Doctors are forever more finding some new link between obesity and some other dread disease.  We really have to watch our weight here in America, the land of plenty.  We live in one of the few countries where the poorest among us are also the heaviest.
  6. Possessing adaptive or coping strategies -- These mechanisms include humor, altruism, and the ability to "turn lemons into lemonade."  One has to realize that life is all about change, some of them not so pleasant, and those that can adapt to those changes are the ones who happily survive.  This ability has proven to be the most powerful predictor of those who will be the happiest and most successful in retirement!

The study identified other important factors that affect the quality of our lives as we age.  Two were the ability to play, compete, and create after retirement, and learning to gain younger friends as we lose our older ones.  Another was the ability to heal relationships through a capacity for gratitude and forgiveness.  Carrying a grudge is apparently unhealthy; who would have thought it!  Two other key indicators of successful aging Dr. Vaillant termed Generativity and Keeper of the Meaning.  Generativity refers to taking care of, or contributing to the well-being of, someone of the next generation.  Older people who are involved in such activities tend to have more satisfaction and feel more of a sense of purpose in their lives.  (Don't let your kids know about this or you will end up with the grandkids every Saturday night; for your own benefit, of course.)  Keeper of the Meaning  refers to those who are involved with preserving traditions and institutions and trying to pass them on to the next generations.  Those involved in some capacity with their churches or universities would fall into this category.  In sum, this study indicated that successful agers, successful retirees, find meaning in their lives outside of themselves.  We have all known older folks who did not do much more than sit and worry about themselves.  They make not only themselves miserable, but also those around them.  Eventually this type of behaviour is isolating because others are driven away by it.

I believe that the conclusions provided by this study are spot-on.  Simple observation reveals that those who are enjoying their retirements have already employed most of these concepts.  These conclusions are as close to a formula for successful aging as we are likely to find.  My experience observing my father and grandfather substantiates these conclusions as well.  They were not given to a great deal of introspection.  They likely would not have known what the term meant, but it seems that they did know what would lead them to a successful retirement.  They were fortunate in that they enjoyed good mental and physical health well into their later years, and they knew enough not to abuse it.  Moreover, as I think about them, I realize they had incorporated many of the other factors as they aged that Dr. Vaillant cites in this enlightening study.  They did not have a lot of money, but they did have wonderful retirements. They set a pretty good example for me; I hope I can do as well for my daughter and grandsons.



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    Retirementflightplans - Journal - Are You Happy Now?

Reader Comments (3)

Good article Mike. I think it reflects Paul's conclusion in Philippians "Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." As I am reading in Mother's Bible, I see that she had underlined I Timothy 6:6-8. "But godliness with contenment is great gain. For we brough nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content." I believe our parents and Papa certainly lived by this principle.

December 21, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterweknudsen

You have always been the best example I have in living a gracious life. My boys are blessed to have you as their grandfather.

December 29, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterGinger

This is what happens in the capitalist world...elders are not respected

June 22, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergerovital h3

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