Happiness in Retirement

I was reading something the other day that I thought had a great way to explain why so many people fail at being happy in retirement.  It partly has to do with how we view happiness.  People often assume happiness is solely related to activities that bring pleasure: golf, a good meal, or a entertaining movie.  The problem is that pleasure usually only lasts as long as the activity itself and the happiness from that activity diminishes if you do it too often (ie: The classic case is you eat steak every day.  After a week it would still taste good after a month it would cease to be anything enjoyable).

So when you are working and very busy you typically get most of your non-work happiness from pleasure activities, which is fine.  Since during your work life the pleasure activties balances out well from your working life.  Yet when you retire you can’t contiue to get all your happiness from pleasure activities, because you end up doing them too much and diminish the amount of happiness you get from those activities.  What’s missing is what happiness you could have been partly getting from your job and didn’t realize it.

Happiness from pleasure is easy to understand.  Expanding that out to what else makes us happy is a bit trickier.  The other two ways we typically get happy is engagement and meaning.

Engagement is a weird one to explain since everyone has done it, but likely at work than at home.  Engagement is doing something that is a good match to your skills and that provides a bit of a challenge.  The result is the hours stream by in seconds to you as you are so engaged in what you are doing.  The end result is you are happy from completing your task and beating that challenge.  Too little of a challenge and your bored, too much and you get frustrated.  So some balance is required.  To help you separate this from pleasure consider this example, watching a sport may be pleasure for you, playing it could be engaging.

Meaning is being in service to something greater than yourself, which sounds a lot like religion, but it isn’t.  Religion can provide some meaning, but it isn’t a requirement.  Meaning flows from the pride of contributing to something greater than you.  It can be helping others via a charity, volunteering your time at a community event or helping raise funds for a project.  People don’t often realize, but your day job might be giving you some meaning as well.  Did you get that big project off the ground and see it done?  Did you help create a new program that really helped your customers? Regardless of how obvious it is you are liking getting some meaning from your job.

So in the end the issue with our retirement planning is it often ignores what happiness we were getting from our job in term of engagement and meaning.  To truly retire well you need to have plans in place to provide all three parts of happiness: pleasure, engagement and meaning.  It won’t be easy and you might even find a bit of ‘work’ might be useful in your plans.  Just don’t get hung up on being paid a lot for doing it and you should be happy in your retirement in every possible way.

4 thoughts on “Happiness in Retirement”

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I read about a recent study that found that people aren’t really aware of what makes them happy. That often, as you’ve articulated, it is challenges in the workplace (or other similar environment) that give us joy. To be happy, one has to have some kind of purpose in retirement – whether it’s helping to care for grandkids, volunteering, etc. Playing golf all day long sounds like fun, but it would get to be so boring after a while. Thanks for the wise words 🙂

  2. Julie,

    Glad you like the post. I would have to agree that some people really don’t know what makes them happy (at least not all of it). No wonder there are studies about those that work the longest do the best in retirement.


  3. I find it amazing when people come back to work full-time after several months because they are bored from retirement.

    I’ve talked with some people who have done that, and got the reply “there’s only one thing left to do after you retire…..”

    I think I could definitely find better things to do with the majority of my days and not really notice a lack of job.

    @ Canadian Money – I think that is one of many things that need to be taught in our public schools – maybe remove a couple of useless classes and teach basic personal finance.

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