Happiness in retirement: one big question to keep in mind

by Adam Felts

Historically, questions about retirement preparedness have revolved almost entirely around money. But there are other essential questions that should go into planning for older age that are often overlooked: who you expect will provide care for you if you need it, where you will live, and how you will get around your neighborhood, to name only a few.

Discussions about retirement planning sometimes can even fail to touch on the most important question of all: what will make us happy in later life? It’s a more challenging question than it sounds. In many respects, retirement reflects a new phase of life, and it lacks many of the norms, institutions, and rituals that structure other common phases across the life course. That means that even the most fundamental questions are up in the air.

But where do we even start a conversation about happiness? For every person, surely, happiness takes on a different character. For you, it might be a busy bar at night, while for me, it might be a quiet wood in the morning. The specifics are one thing—but there are certain foundations to happiness that hold for just about everyone. And we happen to know, scientifically speaking, what makes people not only happy but also what keeps people healthy as they age.

An ambitious longitudinal study has been following a group of Harvard graduates from 1938 until the present, from age 19 into their nineties. And they found that the number one predictor of health and quality of life throughout the lifespan for these men – significantly, all men, due to Harvard’s admissions policies at the time – was having close relationships. Relationship quality mattered more than the participants’ social class, their IQ, their cholesterol levels, or their genetics.

What all this means is that a key component for any retirement plan is to know what your community is going to be. Your happiness, and even your life, might depend on it. In the past, for most people, and still for many people today, some sort of religious organization formed the backbone of their community. But church membership, alongside group membership in general, has fallen precipitously in the last fifty years.

But there are many kinds of communities out there aside from religious ones: bowling leagues, book clubs, birdwatching groups, or just a tight-knit group of friends. The concept that encompasses these kinds of associations is called the third place. Your first place is where you live, your second place is where you work, and your third place is where you go out and you meet your people. Generally, if not necessarily, people who have healthy social lives tend to have a healthy third place.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, Americans have gotten steadily worse at finding and maintaining their third places. Our lives instead are dominated by long days at work, which terminate with a few hours spent in front of the TV (or these days, the phone) before going to sleep. Robert Putnam, who wrote a seminal text exploring the decline in American community and civic engagement, theorized that there’s a direct relationship between our increasingly intimate relationship with screens and our social isolation—a hypothesis that has been deeply explored by psychologists like Sherry Turkle. Our devices produce a pale facsimile for us of interpersonal engagement without the benefits of the real thing, the social equivalent of junk food.

Retirement, as a life stage and aspiration both, has its own particular issues with community. When we discuss retirement, it is surprisingly rare that we discuss relationships. Exhibit A is the images that come up in countless retirement brochures and Google searches. What you will find, almost unfailingly, is couples sitting alone together on the beach, or biking on a promenade, or hiking up a mountain. Often, nobody else is in the picture. The first thought that ought to come to mind when you see pictures like this is: where is everybody?

For whatever reason, retirement is marketed such that it is stripped of any sort of relational life other than spouses. But (for the shrinking number of Americans who have a spouse) you cannot spend time with only your spouse for the whole of your retirement. You will kill each other.

Social support matters for more than just company. Your community is also your pool of people who can support you in times of need. And vice-versa: they are the people who you invest yourself into and look out for. Those kinds of commitments are what provide us meaning, purpose, and a sense of embeddedness.

That’s why the most important retirement planning question isn’t what most people think it is. It’s not where will you live, how you will stay independent, what will you do with your free time, or even whether you will have enough money to retire.

The most important question starts with “who.”

Who will care for me? Who do I want to care for? Who are the people I want in my life? Who can I count on? Who matters to me the most? Our happiness, more than anything else, depends on people. Our lives – and our future lives – are defined most by the people in them. If you want to imagine what your life will be like in retirement, ask yourself one simple question: who will be there with me?

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About the Author

Photo of Adam Felts
Adam Felts

Adam Felts is a researcher and writer at the MIT AgeLab. Currently he is involved in research on the experiences of family caregivers and the future of financial advice. He also manages the AgeLab blog and newsletter. He received his Master's in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2014 and his Master's of Theological Studies from Boston University in 2019.

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