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How to be Happy in Retirement

How to be Happy in Retirement

Robert Powell, Special to USA TODAY

Editor’s note: Dan Solin is the author of the Smartest series of investment books, including the The Smartest Retirement Book You’ll Ever Read and his latest book in the series, The Smartest Sales Book You’ll Ever Read. Dan is also a wealth adviser with Buckingham Asset Management and the director of investor advocacy for the BAM Alliance. We recently talked to Dan about the state of happiness among retirees and pre-retirees in the U.S.

Q: Dan, you’ve written about the sad state of happiness, suggesting that highly intelligent people often double down on activities that make them unhappy to the exclusion of alternatives that would make them much happier. Why is that?

A: People who are focused on buying more “stuff” don’t spend time on things that would make them happier. Accumulating material possessions is a stressor and not a stress reliever. The thrill of a new acquisition gets old quickly. The appetite for newer and better things becomes insatiable. Frustration increases each time the next “latest and greatest” thing doesn’t deliver long-term happiness.

Q: What changes would you suggest that people make to increase their happiness? Why do people need to create a plan for happiness?

A: Start by eliminating the source of unhappiness. When researching my book, I asked hundreds of people to describe their level of happiness. When someone told me they were very unhappy, I asked if they knew the cause. Almost everyone was able to identify the source. It was typically a bad relationship, a job they “hated” or financial issues. Yet, few people had — or were even interested in — taking steps to eliminate the problem.

These issues can be complex. Often, they need to be addressed by taking small steps. Without a plan, complete with benchmark dates and objectives, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and just assume you have to live with your unhappiness. You don’t.

Q: Why are so many people committed to a goal of unhappiness?

A. I agree with Deepak Chopra. He believes people are driven to be unhappy by the appeal of martyrdom, depression, inner conflict and the false belief that suffering is good. Some may even be motivated by a pattern of subtle self-destruction.

Q: Let’s talk about the state of happiness for retirees. First, what should retirees, those who are unhappy, do to improve their happiness?

A. Recognize that almost 60% of our happiness is determined by genetic and other factors over which we have no control. Retirees (and others) need to take charge of the balance of 40%. Having healthy relationships with others, being an empathetic person, becoming a genuine listener, “giving” (through volunteering, charitable donations or acts of kindness), pursuing activities that give you enjoyment, and meditating — all contribute positively toward happiness.

Q: I’ve read at least one study that suggests retirees, even those with low income, are satisfied with their retirement as long as three conditions are in place: they retired on their own terms; they are in good health; and they are still married. Why do you think so many current retirees are satisfied with their golden years? Is there a difference between satisfaction and happiness that we make?

A: There’s a difference between satisfaction and happiness. Current retirees who are reasonably healthy and have enough income to meet their immediate needs may be satisfied with their lives, but it still might be possible for them to be happier. I equate “satisfaction” to “contentment.” It’s possible to achieve a level of happiness that exceeds just being “content.” Nevertheless, being satisfied certainly trumps being unhappy.

Q: What can pre-retirees do to improve their odds of having a “happy” retirement?

A: Being unhealthy correlates directly with unhappiness. Pre-retirees can do a great deal to live a healthy life in retirement. By some estimates, almost 60% of cancer cases are related to poor diet. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular exercise can help prevent or manage a wide range of health problems, including stroke, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, depression, certain types of cancer, arthritis and falls.

Careful financial planning is also critical to a happy retirement.

Q: And last, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton, the authors of Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, suggest that money can buy happiness, provided people make a focused effort on spending differently. They suggest buying experiences rather than material items; focusing on buying time with money; investing in others at whatever level you can; altering consumption patterns; and paying now and consuming later. What say you to the notion that money can buy happiness?

A. I agree with the views of Dunn and Norton. There’s compelling research indicating people with higher incomes are not happier from moment to moment than those with lower incomes, assuming basic needs can be met. People derive more happiness from positive experiences than from the acquisition of material goods. The cost of those experiences is often unrelated to the amount of happiness generated by them.

Robert Powell is editor of Retirement Weekly, a service of He writes regularly about retirement and personal finance for USA Today, USA Weekend, The Wall Street Journal, and MarketWatch. Email him at

This article originally appeared on on July 20, 2014.


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The opinions expressed by featured authors are their own and may not accurately reflect those of JDH Wealth Management. This article is for general information only and is not intended to serve as specific financial, accounting or tax advice.

© 2014, JDH Wealth Management


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