By combining objective scientific, expert opinion, and subjective data, one can create a retirement plan which will maximize the probability that you will have a happy, healthy and fulfilling retirement.
An abbreviated version of this essay is at Designing Your Retirement: A Data Driven Approach
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.
This essay will not discuss retirement finances which is beyond my ken.
Why Am I Qualified to Give Advice About Retirement?
My engineering degrees from college and graduate school taught me how to organize and analyze data; skills which are broadly applicable both professionally and in life.
After graduate school, I trained to be a physician, learned how to read the medical literature, and I acquired insights into human nature from my interaction with my patients.
On retiring, at age 68, the life expectancy calculators told me that I could expect to have about 2+ decades before my demise.
So I decided I needed to “study retirement” and create a retirement plan that would maximize the probability of a happy and fulfilling retirement.
Physicians rely on “expert opinion” when there is an absence of definitive, objective data. These opinions come from the people who have the deepest knowledge on the subject and are thus more likely to be closer to ‘truth’ than the opinion of the non-experts.
Expert opinion states that there are four stages to retirement:
- 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 high percentage of their friendship begin in the work environment. When this happens, retired men may become isolated and lonely. In response, there social life then may piggy-back on the coattails of their spouse and this can lead to marital discord.
This is less of a problem for women as the nature of their friendships is less work dependent.
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 [which were] mostly 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.”
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.
Erik Erikson, an eminent psychoanalyst, had proposed the Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development. The successful completion of both of Stage 7 (Generativity vs Stagnation) and Stage 8 (Integrity vs. Despair) include having a purpose in life which manifest as feeling a need to be of service to the world, help guide subsequent generations, and accumulate wisdom. See David Brooks’ book: How to Know a Person, 2023.
What Makes People Happy?: More Money
For most people a higher income correlates with greater happiness. However in the least happy 15% of the population, this correlation is only true put to an income of about $100,000/year; any further increase in income above $100k did not increase their happiness.
It should also be note that when people win a lottery, their happiness increase. However, this is a temporary increase as they return to their baseline level of happiness one year later.
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 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 closely watch my incoming email, newspaper articles, alumni emails, I read street posters, etc, searching for events which may be appropriate to add to my calendar. On a near daily basis I am adding events to my calendar and I have no “regular” schedule. Thus I need to consult my calendar every morning because each day’s schedule is likely unique.
Volunteering has been demonstrated to have a salutary impact on a person’s health and happiness, with the caveat that the volunteering activity must be done altruistically. If the person is “volunteering” because their spouse told them they needed to do so, then the “volunteer” will not accrue the health and happiness benefits that come to the altruistic volunteer.
Most people over 50 are concerned about developing dementia and that concern is not unreasonable.
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%.
Correlation Does Not Prove Causality
Many of the aforementioned studies are observational trials, which means that the researchers asked a person a series of questions about their activities and health. The researchers then looked for a statistical correlation between the activities and health outcomes.
It is important to understand that just because an activity is positively correlated with a health outcome does not mean the activity is the reason the person had that health outcome.
For example, assume that a study found that people who do parachuting live longer. While it’s possible that parachuting is the reason they have better longevity, it is more likely that only healthy people engage in parachuting.
The only way to prove that an activity causes a particular health outcome is to do a placebo controlled, double blind study. Obviously, this is not always possible
Undoubtedly some of the data discussed above which appears to imply “Event/Activity A” is the cause of “Health Event B” may ultimately be proven to be a correlation without causality.
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.
My Retirement Diary
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. When I added diary entries which I thought might later turn out to be important, I highlighted the text in green.
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
Objective, literature derived insights (likely relevant to most retirees)
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
I now have my well-defined retirement strategic plan.
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 meeting two items ( social and intellectual) on my retirement strategic plan.
My wife and I host a weekly “Shoot the Shit Salon” in our home for the summer and fall of 2023. On Wednesday I send an email to all my neighborhoods email stating that we are going to host the event from 5:30 – 6:30 PM on Friday. We supply cut up fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Some of the attendees will bring alcohol to share. The attendance varies from 3-8 people and the conversation ranges from the familiar to extremely interesting. I plan to resume this event on a monthly basis in the near future, as it is an excellent way to create a sense of community.
Our “Shoot the Shit Salon” also promotes intergenerational interactions which has been shown to have beneficial effects in terms of cognitive and health related 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.
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 “treatment” groups were interviewed. The people who had a conversation with the stranger stated the experience was immensely more enjoyable than sitting quietly on the train. Other studies have confirm the beneficial effects of talking to a stranger. Based I these studies I bang to force myself to talk to strangers and have found it to be rewarding.
I have been working to create a weekly, pickleball league for alumni at MIT. While this event has not yet come to fruition, I am optimistic it will happen and it has the potential to create many additional social interactions and meaningful relations.
I have trying 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. While they are interest, this idea is on pause as CST has higher priorities. I also considered organizing a weekly pinball bowling/pizza session at American Flatbread but have not yet moved the needle on this idea.
I cycle two or three times a week, for two hours, on the Minuteman Bikeway, a rail trail. I find this activity immensely enjoyable, as the scenery is pretty, the trail is flat, there are no cars, and the trail is mostly covered with a beautiful tree canopy. While cycling, I may listen to an audiobook or, if I want to ride faster, listen to music. But sometimes I will ride in silence.
For me, the ride serves as a form of meditation as I always return home feeling refreshed.
I have learned that exposure to “greenness” has been correlated with health benefits and a second study found it correlated with improved longevity. (Caveat: remember my prior comments about causality.) Maybe the tree canopy is part of the reason I feel refreshed from my ride.
Fortunately, there are a plethora of both in-person and on-line educational options to meet this retirement strategic objective.
Many colleges have “lifelong learning” or “learning in retirement” programs, and I have taken some of these classes.
There are may free and low cost online classes, including:
As above both writing and reading have cognitive benefits, I blog at IHaveAnIdea.us, attend a weekly writer’s group, and read (non-fiction) and listen to audiobooks (fiction) while cycling or driving.
I like to engage with new tech and have experimented with the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT. I have found it to be useful tool that improves my writing and helps me generate 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.”
Tactical Plan #4 and #5: Engage in volunteer activities, Ensure one has a sense of purpose or meaning
As discussed previously, the health and longevity benefits of volunteering will accrue only to those who altruistically engage in volunteer activities. Right now, volunteering does not hold sufficient appeal (other than moral) for me to reliably engage in a volunteer activity.
For those looking for local volunteer opportunities: 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.”
Toward this end, I have my
writing, and some
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.
At some point in the future I would like to take psilocybin so as to induce a mystical experience. For those who want to understand this desire, I would encourage you to read Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, Netflix movie, or Youtube video.
I have not yet found the best tactical 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.
One Last Suggestion and a Personal Note
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
- To download the associated PDF or watch the Regis College presentation of this lecture, click here.
- An abbreviated version of this essay is at Designing Your Retirement: A Data Driven Approach
- My other essays about retirement can be read here.