By combining objective scientific and subjective data, one can create a retirement plan which will maximize the probability that you will have a happy, healthy, and fulfilling retirement.
A long version of this essay, with additional references, tables, and slides, is available at: Designing Your Retirement: A Data Driven Approach (long)
Click this link to access the free, downloadable PDFs, video of Regis College lecture
Approximately half of the people nearing retirement have little or no idea how they will spend their time during retirement.
This essay will present a methodology, based on clinical data, expert opinion, and personal data which will help retirees create a happy, healthy, and fulfilling retirement. It will not address retirement financial issue.
Stages of Retirement
Expert opinion states that are four stages to retirement. I suspect an individual can be experiencing more than one Stage at a time.
- Stage 1: honeymoon/vacation
- Stage 2: disenchantment/boredom and loss of identity, purpose, friends, power
- Stage 3: exploration/ re-orientation/ experimentation
- Stage 4: enlightenment, nirvana, rebirth/rewired
Stage 1 is essentially an extended vacation and most people eventually become bored.
During Stage 2, retirees become progressively more disenchanted with too much “free play,” and some begin to regret the loss of either identity, purpose, friends, and/or power which they had when they were employed.
Speaking for myself, I thought long and hard before I was willing to give up my identity as a physician, as it gave “purpose” to my life.
Some retirees will progress to Stage 3, when they begin to take concrete action to deal with the problems experienced in Stage 2.
Finally, those who find a new and fulfilling purpose or meaning in their life spend the remainder of their time in Stage 4, finances and health permitting.
Harvard Study of Adult Development (The Grant Study)
In 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development selected 268 Harvard sophomores who were going to be followed for the rest of their lives with periodic physical exams, medical tests, and questionnaires.
At the same time The Glueck Study at Harvard began to follow 456 disadvantaged 14-year-old Bostonians. The Glueck Study was trying to determine why these boys had not gotten into trouble when so many of their peers had already gotten into trouble.
Ultimately these two very different cohorts, an elite and a disadvantage segment of white America, were merged into the Harvard Study of Adult Development which continues today.
The study has now been expanded to include the spouses and the second generation of the original cohort.
One of the questions which the study tried to answer is “What makes people happy?”
The most important predictor of whether a person was going to be happy was whether or not they had a sufficient number of meaningful social relations. To the great surprise of the investigators, having many meaningful social relationships was also positively correlated with better health and longevity. (For a lay explanation of this remarkable clinical study, read: The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, Waldinger M.D. and Schulz Ph.D)
A study published under the title “What Do Happy People Do?” also found that happiness correlated with social activities, religious activities, reading a newspaper, and inversely correlated with watching television.
When men retire they tend to loose a significant fraction of their friends as a large fraction of their friend are derived from their work environment. This is less of a problem for women.
What Makes People Happy? Physical Activity
Both the Harvard study and a large meta-analysis of 23 studies, “A Systematic Review of the Relationship Between Physical Activity and Happiness,” determined that physical fitness and physical activities are correlated with happiness. The later study found that “… randomized controlled trials mostly [which were] focused on older adults … suggested that both aerobic exercise and stretching/balancing exercise were effective in improving happiness. Evidence showed a consistent positive relationship between physical activity and happiness” and that “as little as 10-min physical activity per week or 1 day of doing exercise per week might result in increased levels of happiness.”
What Makes People Happy? A Sense of Purpose and Meaning in Life
The Harvard study also found that having a sense of purpose and meaning in life is correlated with happiness.
Similarly, “Multimorbidity and Social Participation Is Moderated by Purpose in Life and Life Satisfaction” found that enhanced social participation and having a “purpose” in life mitigates the adverse impact that serious illness had on the individuals.
For most people, a larger income correlates with greater happiness. However, studies have found that when a person wins a lottery, their happiness increases for about one year after which time they return to their baseline level of happiness.
Deliberative Scheduling in Retirement
Some retirees assume that they needn’t proactively schedule activities, they assume they will nevertheless be busy; and many later discover that they have too much unstructured time.
Arthur Brooks, who writes a lot about happiness for the Atlantic said:
Happiness “demands a conscious focus on your relationships, not leaving their quality and intensity to chance. It means treating them with the kind of seriousness that people usually reserve for their money or career.”
I spend a significant fraction of my week watching my email inbox, newspaper articles, alumni emails, reading street posters, etc, searching for events which may be appropriate to add to my calendar.
Volunteering has been demonstrated to have salutary impact on a person’s healthand happiness, with the caveat that the if the volunteer activity is not done altruistically then there is no accrued health benefit.
Most people over 50 are concerned about developing dementia. Exercise and various cognitive activities (e.g. reading, writing, classes, crossword puzzles, chess, painting, drawing, woodworking, listening to music) have been has found to reduce the risk of dementia by 7-11%.
Personal Interests and Priorities
All of the aforementioned insights were derived from objective data and the conclusions are likely applicable to most people.
Now I need to look at my subjective data. The type of data will be unique to each individual but nevertheless is equally important for your retirement plan.
On retiring I began to keep an on-line, near-daily diary, My Retirement Diary, which I used to glean insights as to interests and motivates me. From my diary, I learned that a “good day “included:
- Cycling the Minuteman Bike or going for a walk
- Learning something new
- Some form of social interaction
- Creating, making, or repairing something
- An absence of nonproductive, stressful activities.
My Retirement Strategic Plan
Integrating all of the above objective and subjective data, I can now construct my retirement strategic plan.
1. Expand my social circle / meaningful social relations
2. Engage in physical activities
3. Engage in intellectual activities
4. Engage in altruistic volunteer activities
5. Ensure I have a sense of purpose or meaning
Subjective insights from My Retirement Diary (unique to my needs)
6. Avoid needlessly stressful activities
7. Engage in creative activities
8. Explore the secular spiritual world
- more right brain: more creative, emotional, and artistic
- less left brain: less analytic, scientific but without ignoring reality
My Retirement Tactical Plans
Next, I must choose retirement activities that are likely to implement at least one item of my eight point retirement strategic plan. These activities will become my retirement tactile plans.
My retirement tactical plans may not be relevant to the reader. I offer these suggestions by way of example, and as a means of helping the reader create their unique retirement tactical plans.
My hometown Council on the Aging has a weekly senior walk and a monthly men’s talking group. I attended both of these events for a while, but I did not feel like it was meeting my needs and I stopped going.
I have created a monthly rembrunch (Retired Elderly Men’s brunch) group which has been a source of interesting conversation, and, with time, potentially new friends.
I have joined my local alumni group (MIT Club of Boston) and attend social events and lectures, thus satisfying two items on my strategic plan.
My wife and I hosted a weekly “Shoot the Shit Salon” on Fridays from 5:30 – 6:30 PM. We supply cut up fruit, vegetables, and nuts and some attendees will bring alcohol to share. The attendance varies from 3-8 people and the conversation ranges from the familiar to extremely interesting.
Our “Shoot the Shit Salon” also promotes intergenerational interactions which has been shown to have beneficial cognitive and health outcomes.
There is a famous social science experiment in which half the people who are about to board a train are encouraged to initiate a conversation with a stranger. At the end of the train ride, both the control and the treatment group were interviewed. Clearly the group which was encouraged to talk with a stranger had a more enjoyable experience than the control group. I now force myself to talk to strangers and have found it to be a rewarding endeavor.
I have been working to create a weekly, pickleball league for alumni at MIT. If successful, I believe this event will result in many additional social interactions.
I have also been attempting to learn how to have more “meaningful” conversations, with the expectation that this too will expand my social circles. Toward this end I am trying to employ techniques discussed by David Brooks’ in his book, How to Know A Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. Unfortunately, changing old habits is not easy’ but I’m still trying.
Finally, I tried to get Cambridge’s Central Square Theater to sponsor a monthly play reading group for non-actors – this activity is now in abeyance as CST has other priorities.
I cycle two or three times a week, for two hours, on the Minuteman Bikeway, a rail trail. I find this activity immensely enjoyable, and I always return home feeling refreshed.
I have learned that exposure to “greenness” has been correlated with health benefits and a second well-designed study also found it correlated with improved longevity. Maybe the tree canopy is the reason I feel refreshed when I return from my ride.
There are a plethora of in-person and on-line options to meet this retirement strategic objective.
Many colleges offer lifelong learning or learning in retirement programs, and I have taken some of these classes.
In the Boston area, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education has a rich portfolio of classes.
There are many free and low cost online classes, including:
As both reading and writing have been shown to have cognitive benefits, so I blog at IHaveAnIdea.us, attend a weekly writer’s group, and read (non-fiction) and listen to audiobooks (fiction) while cycling.
I like to engage with new tech and have experimented with the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT. I have found it to be a useful tool in helping me improve my writing and for generating new ideas.
As ChatGPT is free, I would encourage you to click the above link, create an account, and then type-in an inquiry like: “I have these five ingredients, what can I make for dinner” or “write a valentine to my wife, her best attributes are intelligence, beauty, integrity and it should be a poem in the style of Shakespeare.”
For those looking for volunteer opportunities, visit https://www.volunteermatch.org
For me, both of these items have yet to be definitively addressed.
My Retirement Diary taught me that engaging in fruitless and confrontational political conversations will ruin my day. I now avoid talking to some people because they embrace an anti-democratic version of America, even though I know they are otherwise good, moral people.
I have also ceased to engage with the healthcare system as doing so engenders a large degree of stress.
As Leonardo da Vinci said “… and if the above effect is not obtained, waste no more time on it.”
Tactical Plan #7: Engage in Creative Activities
I took Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Masterclass on Mindfulness and Mediation, but did not feel it was beneficial to me. Cycling is my meditative activity.
I have not yet found the ideal tactile plan to achieve this end.
Designing Your Retirement: A Step-by-Step Guide
To create a happy, healthy, and fulfilling retirement one needs to:
First create a retirement strategic plan based on this objective data:
1. Expand your social circle / meaningful social relations
2. Engage in physical activities
3. Engage in intellectual activities
4. Engage in altruistic volunteer activities
5. Ensure one has a sense of purpose or meaning
Then supplement these goals with items that reflect your subjective interests/priorities.
Next, begin participating in activities (your retirement tactical plans) which have a reasonably probability of implementing one or more items on your retirement strategic plan.
Finally, observe/monitor the effectiveness of your retirement tactical plans and modify them as needed. Also consider revising the subjective component of your retirement strategic plan as your needs and interest change.
A step-by-step guide can be downloaded here: Designing Your Retirement Manual
Consider creating a mantra which will guide you in your retirement journey. For me, that mantra is “It is now my time.”
Since I retired my son had repeatedly asked me to build him a bluebird house. He told me that I had a lot of free time, it would only take an hour or two, it was a simple project, and “You have nothing else to do.”
I repeatedly told him that I wasn’t interested in building a birdhouse, and “It is now my time.”
A few weeks after my son’s first child was born, my son asked me: “What if the baby asked for a birdhouse?”
I wrote in My Retirement Diary that when our grand-baby asks for a birdhouse, she and I will have a conversation in which I will agree to teach her how to build a bluebird house, and together we will do so. Then she can decide if she wants to give her bluebird house to her father.
Hayward Zwerling, M.D. (retired)
2 December 2023
- A long version of this essay, with additional references, tables, and slides, is at: Designing Your Retirement: A Data Driven Approach (long)
- The associated PDF and a video of my Regis College lecture is here.