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Live Longer and Better in Retirement – Social Conventions From The Ancient Village

I’ve written before that my team at Keen Wealth places a high priority on educating ourselves about trends, innovations, and ideas that could have an impact on the financial and lifestyle planning we do for our clients. Personally, I set aside a few hours out of my workweek for learning time, and recently I came across a fascinating Ted2017 talk from Susan Pinker. She’s a developmental psychologist whose book, The Village Effect, talks about how important face-to-face social bonds are to our longevity and quality of life. I recommend watching Pinker’s entire Ted2017 talk, but I’d also like to focus on a few insights that I think can really help seniors strengthen their social bonds and enjoy a long and prosperous life in retirement.

1. Stay integrated.

Across the developed world, women live an average of six to eight years longer than men do. The Italian island of Sardinia is an exception. According to Pinker, this is the one place in the world where men and women have approximately the same, long life expectancy.

Pinker spent some time investigating this phenomenon. In Sardinia, she visited the village of Villagrande and noticed that, like many ancient villages, it was very compact: tightly-packed houses, narrow streets and alleyways intersecting with each other. “As I walked through the village, I could feel hundreds of pairs of eyes watching me from behind doorways and curtains, from behind shutters,” Pinker says. The effect of the village’s layout was that the townspeople were constantly bumping into and interacting with each other. No one was ever alone because the very architecture of Villagrande made that impossible.

Many seniors seek out this integration by moving to retirement communities. Others have strong social bonds with friends and family in their current neighborhoods. What matters most is that you find that community and stay active and engaged with the people around you.

2. Family matters.

But Pinker also observed that those who are lucky enough to have strong bonds with family may fair the best. So many of the people Pinker spent time with, including a few centenarians, were surrounded by family. Not just their spouses or their children, but extended family: uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces. “People are always there, or dropping by,” says Pinker. One woman made a special pasta every single Sunday with her daughters and then went around the village giving portions to family and friends.

Obviously, no two families are alike, and we’re not all lucky enough to enjoy the kind of strong social bonds with our families that are so ingrained in the Villagrande lifestyle. But your family can be a real source of sustenance in retirement, even if you’re not all going to spend every weekend together. Organizing special trips to visit your grandkids or even a dream family vacation for the whole family are the kinds of activities that can rejuvenate a retirement, and even lead to more memorable experiences.

Pinker cites another study by Brigham Young University that investigated what factors in a person’s life reduced their chances of dying and increased their chances of longevity. Coming in at one and two, respectively, were social integration and close relationships. It sounds incredible that our social bonds can do more for our longevity than diet, exercise, vaccinations, and smoking and drinking habits. But the research, and Pinker’s experiences in Villagrande, sure seem to bear this out.

3. Face-to-face.

You might think that the internet provides an easy way for retirees to bridge distance between people and fill in their social bonds. But in fact, research shows that our brains react very differently to interaction via social media and face-to-face interaction. “Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters, and like a vaccine, they protect you now in the present and well into the future,” Pinker says. “So simply making eye contact with somebody, shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust and it lowers your cortisol levels. So it lowers your stress. And dopamine is generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain.”

And while face-to-face contact can provide a quick hit of happiness, the bigger point is that it’s good for your long-term health too. “The power of such face-to-face contact is really why there are the lowest rates of dementia among people who are socially engaged,” Pinker says. “It's why women who have breast cancer are four times more likely to survive their disease than loners are. Why men who've had a stroke who meet regularly to play poker or to have coffee or to play old-timer's hockey are better protected by that social contact than they are by medication.”

This is one reason why we tell our clients that using their retirement assets on experiences provides so much more value than buying stuff. The movie-lover who splurges on a new big screen TV might lose out on date nights with his wife. The gearhead who buys a sports car might putter around the neighborhood alone. Eventually, we get used to new things and grow bored with them. But buying a big camper and taking the whole family to the Grand Canyon is something you’re going to keep with you for the rest of your life.

4. Build your retirement “village.”

Concludes Pinker, “Building in-person interaction into our cities, into our workplaces, into our agendas bolsters the immune system, sends feel-good hormones surging through the bloodstream and brain and helps us live longer. I call this building your village, and building it and sustaining it is a matter of life and death.”

Those may sound like strong words, but in my experience working with retirees, Pinker’s urgency is justified. The successful retirees I know don’t think of retirement as an end – they embrace the possibilities of a new stage of life, the freedom to pursue their passions, and the social bonds that become so valuable as we age. We are grateful to work every day with clients who fit this description, and to learn from folks who are living life to the fullest.

If you don’t have a “village” built into your retirement plan, talk to your close friends and family about your ideal lifestyle in retirement. Then, come talk to my team at Keen Wealth about how your financial plan can help lay a strong foundation on which your village can grow.


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About Bill

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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