The Secrets to a Happy Retirement

The following is a guest post by Janet Stanton Burt from SEI Goal Investor.

U.S. retirees report they’re having less fun, no matter how much money they have. Discover what research says you should do now to make your retirement more satisfying later.

Fewer retirees than ever report they are enjoying themselves in retirement — a trend that’s consistent across income groups, new research found. Discover how you can plan for a retirement that maximizes your chances for satisfying golden years.

Downward Satisfaction Trend

 As you might expect, good health and plenty of money help retired workers enjoy themselves, but something else seems to be lowering retirees’ satisfaction. The proportion of retirees who say they feel “very satisfied,” dropped significantly in both the highest- and lowest-income groups between 1998 and 2012, according to a 2016 Employee Benefits Research Institute (EBRI) survey.

ERBI also uncovered an increase in the number of people who found retirement “not at all satisfying.” Retirees with pension income, who you’d think would feel satisfied because they’re financially secure, also reported rising dissatisfaction.

How to Plan for a Happy Retirement

Why aren’t more people happy in retirement? While the EBRI study didn’t explore the reasons for the drop, many other researchers have explored the factors that make retirement satisfying.

Build Your Nest Egg

Studies have linked wealth to retirement satisfaction, despite the ERBI data showing plenty of unsatisfied wealthy retirees. To give yourself the financial flexibility to change plans or pursue alternative retirement lifestyles, set a specific savings goal, and start investing as early as possible in your 401(k), IRA or other retirement accounts.

Starting to save and invest early maximizes the benefit of compound earnings over time. Consistent investing helps you build a nest egg so you can switch gears if you’re not satisfied with your original retirement plan.

Take Care of Your Health Now

Surprisingly, financial security isn’t the No. 1 ingredient in the recipe for retirement satisfaction: 81% of retired people said good health was the most important factor, a 2014 survey from Merrill Lynch revealed.

Other studies bear out that finding. About 80% of people who say they’re in excellent health also say they’re very satisfied with their retirements, while only 25% of folks in poor health report very satisfying retirements, according to the EBRI survey.

There’s nothing you can do about the genetic hand you’re dealt, but it’s never too late to make healthy lifestyle changes that can have a powerful impact on your health and longevity. Recommendations for healthy living in the Merrill report include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating a nutritious diet
  • Avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol

Fruit Basket

Budget for Travel

Traveling is, by far, the most popular retirement dream, a 2015 Transamerica study found. Seeing the world is a smart way to build life satisfaction. Research shows travelers are overall happier and healthier than non-travelers. Unfortunately, relatively few retirees travel frequently, and many regret not putting a higher priority on budgeting for retirement travel.

Avoid regrets: Why not fold travel into your retirement plan as a fixed, yearly expense, so you’ll have the resources to indulge your wanderlust?

Travel - Prisma Candy

Stay Connected

There is a wealth of scientific evidence that social connection helps humans stay healthy and feel happier.

  • Community volunteering provides many health benefits, and those 60 and older benefit most, research from the Corporation for National and Community Service shows
  • Loneliness has more impact on life span than known vices like smoking, according to Healthy at 100: The Scientifically Proven Secrets of the World’s Healthiest and Longest-Lived Peoples, by John Robbins
  • At least three hours socializing with family and friends is linked to a dramatic increase in happiness, a 2011 Gallup poll revealed

Once you leave the workforce, hobbies and activities can help rebuild the social networks you formed at the office.

Practice Mindfulness

Recent psychological research shows training our brains to be mindful dramatically impacts overall happiness. Mindfulness is a mental technique, somewhat like mediation, that promotes focusing on the present moment without judgement.

Studies have found that practicing mindfulness for even a few weeks can provide an array of physical, social and mental health benefits, including:

  • Boosting immune function
  • Reducing stress and depression
  • Enhancing relationships between spouses

Start Planning

You’re probably not going to be able to accurately predict what you’ll do in retirement if you’re decades away from that life stage. But you can keep your options open through careful planning. Aim to head into retirement as healthy as possible, with a nest egg that will give you the financial flexibility to adapt and change your lifestyle to your satisfaction.

This information is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide investment or legal advice. SEI does not claim responsibility for the accuracy or reliability of the information provided.

Neither SEI nor its affiliates provide tax advice. Please note that (i) any discussion of U.S. tax matters contained in this communication cannot be used by you for the purpose of avoiding tax penalties; (ii) this communication was written to support the promotion or marketing of the matters addressed herein; and (iii) you should seek advice based on your particular circumstances from an independent tax advisor.

Blogger-in-Chief here at RetirementSavvy and author of Sin City Greed, Cream City Hustle and RENDEZVOUS WITH RETIREMENT: A Guide to Getting Fiscally Fit.


  1. While we’re looking forward to not being on a work schedule, we’re definitely mindful of things we want to do and experience. One of the largest gifts we gave to ourselves as a set up for retirement, now that I think about it, is cutting the cord. No more returning home, turning on the boob tube, and wasting away an hour or two filling the mind with junk.

    • I hear ya. I’m a fan of watching television; however, I typically seek out specific shows or documentaries. Flopping down and ‘watching’ whatever is on the tube for extended periods of time is probably the most significant time – and energy – waster there is, in or out of retirement.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts, my friend. Have a fantabulous weekend!

  2. I think that planning for travel is really important and we plan to include extra in our budgets so that we don’t miss out on things because they cost too much. (We always travel quite frugally – but we want to make sure we take advantage of opportunities too!) And staying connected will be very important too. We’ll have a different group of friends when we relocate for part of the year, so it will be important not to lose our friends at home!

    • I believe maintaining old, and cultivating new, relationships will be a key for us. The importance of social connections can’t be underestimated.

  3. I agree with staying healthy. Unfortunately we were dealt the genetic card and it is weighing heavy on my early retirement. The US is one of the few western nations where illnes can practically destroy the nest egg that got you in retirement.

    • “The US is one of the few western nations where illnes can practically destroy the nest egg that got you in retirement.” And that really is most unfortunate. While some decry Obamacare, I’m hopeful that we continue to move in a direction that recognizes a basic level of healthcare should be the right of every citizen and an illness or injury should not throw a families well-being into doubt.

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing, my friend.

  4. An article to get the creative juices working James. I’m guessing that this was talking mostly about older, traditional retirees than early retirement. But still, worth bearing in mind that as easy as it is to get into the same old daily routine while you’re still working, the same can be said once you retire.

    The key is to maintain or replace interests that get you out doing things and socialising with others or you’ll end up in front of the TV every night.

    • ” … worth bearing in mind that as easy as it is to get into the same old daily routine while you’re still working, the same can be said once you retire.” Indeed. In talking with retired friends – like the one I describe in my response to Andy – the key is to stay engaged. That is one of the things the wife and I talk about quite a bit and I have no doubt that between planned activities and ad hoc ones, we will stay actively engaged with taking classes (cooking, photography for her; and a foreign language, learning guitar for me), traveling, visiting family, supporting local arts, working out and perhaps some volunteering.

  5. If work is the source of a persons unhappiness then maybe retiring could help but I feel there has to be something interesting to take up the time. When I get asked what I do, I say nothing but I am busy every day. It seems like there is never enough time. My list of things to do, see, learn or experience is growing faster than I can do them. I think being happy in retirement is what you make of it. Discovering what makes you happy before you retire is important.

    • Good to hear from you, my friend; it has been awhile. Your experience mirrors what I hear from some retired friends. In fact, we just had dinner with some good friends, and the wife retired within the last few months in her mid-50s. She noted that while she doesn’t necessarily have fixed activities every day, she is absolutely busy every day and finds that there are days when she can’t accomplish all the things she would like to.

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