How to have your happiest retirement
Retirement, with all its promises of leisure and travel, might seem like a blissful idea when you’re slogging away at the career coalface. But the adjustment to freedom isn’t always smooth.
While there’s abundant financial advice for this stage in life, setting yourself up for retirement happiness is often an afterthought. And yet studies have identified a compelling reason to safeguard your mental wellbeing as you grow older: recent research from the US into risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease strongly indicates that depression, especially in later life, may increase your chances of developing the condition.
Dr Terry Chong is a research fellow at the Academic Unit for Psychiatry of Old Age at the Department of Psychiatry, the University of Melbourne, and has identified some key factors critical to happiness in retirement.
“Retirement is certainly on the list of major life changes,” says Dr Chong. “As with most change, it is really important to prepare for it. Often I see patients who have become depressed after an unexpected retirement due to ill health or disability. Or they may have been in denial of the coming change and thus unprepared for it, and then it hits them when they don't have to turn up to work the next day and they're not quite sure what to do.”
Dr Chong encourages people to reflect upon their life as retirement approaches. “Negotiating this stage well includes having a sense that you’re happy with who you are, the life you’ve lived, the family and community you’re part of, the career you have.”
Being at peace with where you’re at, and having a ‘no regrets’ attitude will help smooth the path to the next stage, while guilt, dissatisfaction or dwelling on unfulfilled goals can lead to negative moods and even depression.
Step, don’t leap
Aim for a gentle, steady transition, says Dr Chong. “I suggest starting life changes prior to retirement, so that it is a segue rather than an abrupt change.” The transition, he says, may involve gradually reducing or changing work, increasing time spent on your spare-time interests and new pursuits, and planning things to do after retirement.
Nurture your health
“Ill health and disability have a clear impact on the happiness of my patients,” says Dr Chong. “The three pillars of health are very important to happiness: physical, cognitive and mental health.” He cautions retirees to look after their physical wellbeing by maintaining a healthy weight, eating a nutritious diet and staying active. He also stresses the importance of reducing your dementia risk as much as possible by increasing physical, cognitive and social activity, and treating or managing conditions such as diabetes and depression that have been shown by research to increase the likelihood of developing dementia, as well as avoiding pesticides and heavy air pollution. The earlier you adopt these habits the better, but it’s never too late.
One of the most beneficial skills for optimum happiness is the practice of mindfulness, says Dr Chong. “Living mindfully can change our expectations around happiness. Often in modern life, we feel so busy that we go through the day on ‘auto-pilot.’ Mindfulness encourages us to be as fully involved in the present as we can and also lets us take a step back from life's turmoil. I like Dr Russ Harris's website and app at www.actmindfully.com.au and I recommend this to my patients.”
Social interaction has been shown to help preserve cognitive function as well as raising your spirits. Numerous studies in various developed countries show that strong social connections enhance health and extend your life. One of the most striking of these was a 1979 study from John Hopkins University, which found that people who were not connected to others were three times as likely to die over a nine-year period as those with strong social connections. Another American study, which examined data from more than 309,000 people, found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50 per cent — an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. The lesson: cherish the connections you already have, and consider forging new bonds, too.
Another US survey found that seniors who volunteer and/or donate money to others were happier (66 per cent vs 52 per cent) and healthier (50 per cent vs 43 per cent) than those who did not regularly give to others.
Ending on a high note
Here’s the best news: statistically, retirement is most likely to be the happiest time of your life. A 2012 study by Dr Tony Beatton of Queensland University of Technology and Professor Paul Frijters of The University of Queensland showed that Australians are at their happiest at retirement age. Collecting data from more than 60,000 people in Australia, Britain and Germany, the pair found people were happiest as they entered retirement age (55-75).