You have a steady job that pays the bills and puts your abilities to good use. You have loving relationships with your spouse, your children, extended family, and close friends. Your house provides enough space and security. Your golf league gives you a chance to unwind. Your volunteer work improves your community. You can see your retirement on the horizon and you’re confident that your nest egg will support the next chapter of your life.
The specifics might vary, but most folks would consider this scenario the basis for a good life. Yet many of us who do check these boxes often feel like there's something missing.
A fascinating new study published by Affective Science asked nearly 4,000 people from 9 countries (including the U.S.) what kind of life they wanted. The results suggest that there's an important dimension to getting the most out of life that many of us may be overlooking.
1. A happy life
Researchers began by asking participants to write down a simple statement that described their vision of an ideal life. Then, participants were instructed to rank 15 terms according to how closely they applied to that ideal vision. The first five terms characterized happiness:
If these words describe your life, it sounds like your basic emotional and physical needs are met. You feel good about where you are, and you most likely have the tools and long-term perspective necessary to make plans for where you want to go. And, perhaps most importantly, with this groundwork in place, you can start building out other aspects of your life that will be more rewarding.
2. A meaningful life
The next group of words were meant to correlate with the sense of meaning people wanted in their lives:
- Sense of purpose
- Involves devotion
It's here that people who are truly purposeful about their lives move past their own needs and start thinking about the bigger picture. Countless studies have drawn strong connections between doing good, happiness, and longevity.
Meaning can become increasingly important to us as we age out of the workforce as well. Folks who kept their noses to the grindstone, doing work they didn't necessarily love to support their families, often struggle filling their days in retirement.
On the other hand, retirees who did make meaning an important part of their working lives often turn to volunteer work, part-times jobs, or mentorship to perpetuate that important sense of purpose.
3. A psychologically rich life
Not surprisingly, words under the "happy" and "meaningful" categories rated the highest among respondents.
But there was a third group of words that completed the picture of a good life for most people:
- Full of surprise
- Psychologically rich
Why does the initial jolt of happiness after a big-ticket purchase wear off so quickly?
Why do so many people change careers or enroll in continuing education classes?
Why do so many retirement blueprints include goals like moving to a new city, learning a new skill, or founding a new company?
Because “perfect” gets boring!
That’s especially true in retirement. For many of us, our jobs provide us opportunities for problem solving, learning, trial and error, and growth. An unexpected crisis might have been tough on you in the moment, but that feeling of satisfaction from putting your skills to the test can be hard to replicate outside the office.
Parenting is another area that’s full of surprises, challenges, and eventful milestones. But by the time you’re retired your adult kids are out of the house and busy building lives of their own.
Retirees have to be intentional about making new opportunities for psychological richness a part of their new routines. If you’re not challenging yourself or following your curiosity to new experiences, the honeymoon phase of retirement can be awfully short. Trying to pump up your happiness or sense of meaning by buying stuff or overindulging charitable impulses isn’t going to fill that void. Worse, it could put your long-term financial plan at risk.
Finding the right mix of happiness, meaning, and psychological richness will be an ongoing process. You might place a different emphasis on each at different phases of your life, or as your plans adjust to various life transitions.
But if you are nearing retirement, it’s important that you start thinking about how you want to use your assets to balance these priorities along with covering your basic needs. We want the only surprises in your retirement to be ones that make your life more interesting, not more stressful. Let’s talk about what a “good life” means to you and how our comprehensive planning process can help make yours great.
Bill Keen is a CHARTERED RETIREMENT PLANNING COUNSELOR℠ and independent financial advisor with more than 25 years of industry experience. As the founder and CEO of Keen Wealth Advisors, a registered investment advisory firm, he specializes in providing personalized retirement planning designed to help people thrive before and during their retirement years. With a passion for educating others, Bill regularly blogs about retirement planning, hosts the podcast Keen on Retirement, and has contributed to U.S. News and World Report, Reuters, Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, Yahoo Finance, and other publications. Based in Overland Park, Kansas, Bill and his team work with clients throughout the greater Kansas City area and across the nation. To learn more, connect with him on LinkedIn or visit www.keenwealthadvisors.com.
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