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Retirement Just Might Pay You a ‘Happiness Bonus’

The benefits of retiring can outweigh health and money worries


(This article appeared previously on MarketWatch.com.)

Life gets better in retirement — despite the financial and physical challenges associated with that time of life. That’s the upbeat conclusion of a new poll from MassMutual Financial Group, which found that although nearly half of Americans retire sooner than they planned, “retirees indicate high levels of emotional well-being, enjoyment and financial security.”

 
While these conclusions may run contrary to stereotypes of later life as a time of loneliness, depression and decline, they came as no surprise to me: As I chronicled in a recent Wall Street Journal article, a growing body of scientific research that shows that, in many ways, life gets better as we get older.

The Happiness Level of Retirees

 
Consistent with the research of Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor and director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, the MassMutual survey finds that positive emotions increase and negative emotions decrease over time among those in or near retirement. For example, while 72 percent of retirees say they are “extremely or quite happy,” only 61 percent of pre-retirees say the same.

Moreover, almost 70 percent of retirees report being “extremely or quite relaxed,” versus just 34 percent of pre-retirees. And fewer retirees than pre-retirees report feeling negative emotions, including stress, frustration and nervousness.

(MORE: Are You Having a Midlife Crisis or a U-Curve?)

 
“Even though leading up to retirement, people have fear and anxiety, they seem to really enjoy their retirement years,” says Mass Mutual executive vice president Elaine Sarsynski. Moreover, she adds, people seem to get happier as time goes by.
Survey Says: Retirees Are Loving Life
 
Based on responses from 1,817 people within 15 years of retirement (before and during), the MassMutual survey was conducted in September. Respondents had to be at least 40 and have savings or investments of at least $50,000 — a sum that’s consistent with the average 401(k) balance of boomers, according to Sarsynski.
 
Research by Carstensen, among others, indicates that emotional well-being improves until the 70s, when it levels off. Even centenarians “report overall high levels of well-being,” according to a 2014 study Carstensen co-wrote, which also cites extensive earlier research.
 
Overall, 60 percent of those responding to the MassMutual survey say they are very satisfied with their lifestyle in retirement — a finding most prevalent among those in their 70s; in good health; married or living with a partner and with at least $500,000 in assets. Those with pensions are also happier.

(MORE: Do You Worry Too Much?)

 
According to the new poll, retirees say retirement has given them the opportunity to:
  • Enjoy themselves (82 percent)
  • Have more free time (80 percent)
  • Have new experiences (69 percent)
  • Live a more relaxed lifestyle (66 percent)
  • Enjoy friends (65 percent)
  • Feel fulfilled (64 percent)
  • Reinvent themselves (25 percent)
Pre-Retirement Worries Fade

Interestingly, the findings show that the pre-retirees’ worries about retirement tend to be overblown.

For example, while 44 percent of pre-retirees worried about financial uncertainty, only 31 percent of retirees say that has been an issue. Among those still working, 31 percent say they worry about filling their time in retirement. But only 14 percent of retirees share that concern. Moreover, as retirement progresses, satisfaction rises. Among those who retired less than five years ago, 56 percent report being satisfied, versus 63 percent who retired more than five years ago.

(MORE: Do Men or Women Worry More About Retirement?)

 
Is everything perfect in retirement? Not by any means. Aside from the 31 percent who report financial uncertainty, 13 percent say they are too busy and 10 percent have developed an illness or disability.
 
Sarsynski says the poll contains some lessons for pre-retirees. The first is to be prepared. Those who prepare financially and emotionally for retirement — by doing things like calculating the best time to collect Social Security, reconnecting with old friends and focusing on their relationship with their spouse — were happier, on average, than those who didn't take such steps, the poll found.

Moreover, because 45 percent of respondents retired sooner than they had expected to, it’s important not to assume that you can retire on your own timetable.

 

Anne Tergesen is a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, covering retirement finances and planning. This article originally appeared on MarketWatch.com

By Anne Tergesen
Anne Tergesen is a writer for MarketWatch.com, specializing in retirement.@annetergesen

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