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The 4 Traits of the Happiest Retirees

What this career coach has observed about them

If you want to be happy in your retirement years, here’s my advice: don’t retire — at least not in the traditional sense.

Among the men and women I know who have reached that elusive finish line, those who spent extensive periods of time puttering around on the links or vacationing at sea appeared to be aging faster than those who were still actively employed or engaged in some kind of meaningful activity.

I attribute this phenomenon to the mind; perhaps when the mind tells the body that it’s retired, things begin to atrophy at an accelerated rate.

On the other hand, some of the happiest people I know who’ve reached retirement first treated it like a vacation and then, after some rejuvenating R&R, emerged with a renewed sense of purpose and focus, eschewing who they once were and ready to embrace the possibility of who they might become.

Over the years, as a career coach I have carefully observed — firsthand or through stories relayed to me by others — happy people in their retirement years. Here are the top four traits they have in common:

1. The spirit of an entrepreneur Happy retirees often work part-time as consultants, writers, teachers, board members, inventors, artists and speakers. The most successful among them realize that age is nothing more than a number.

In one way or another, people who are most happy in retirement continue to learn new things and consider new ideas.

It’s worth remembering that Colonel Sanders was well over 60 when he made it big with Kentucky Fried Chicken; Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, didn’t take up writing until he was 65; Grandma Moses, renowned American folk artist, began painting in her 70s. And Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler on the Roof  lyricist and Broadway legend, is still working on new shows at 91.

2. An ability to find joy in working The 65-and-older population is growing faster than the total U.S. population and even people in their 80s are increasingly returning to some type of work, whether part-time, paid or volunteer.

In many ways, this growing sector is divorcing from traditional views of retirement and relying on their natural ability to create, which may have been long dormant.

3. The knowledge that change is good In one way or another, people who are most happy in retirement continue to learn new things and consider new ideas. They are not afraid of change.

Some go back to school, while others continue to learn through workshops, retreats and, most of all, reading. Thanks to a European phenomenon called lifelong learning, which took root in the U.S. some 30 years ago, retirees now have more avenues for exploring new interests, meeting new people, increasing their knowledge and challenging their intellect.

4. They eat well, sleep soundly and play often Happily retired people treat themselves like a good friend. They keep themselves well-fed, exercise at least three times a week, get proper rest and maintain strong social connections.

They also understand how vital good health is to their well-being during retirement. In their study, Health and Retirement: Planning for the Great Unknown, the demographics research firm Age Wave and Merrill Lynch surveyed 3,300 pre-retirees and retirees who cited good health as the No. 1 key to happiness in retirement.

When I meet with people who tell me they’re retired and are searching for ways to be happy, the first thing I tell them is to eliminate the word “retirement” from their vocabulary. After all, age is a state of mind.

With a goal to be happy, healthy, engaged and contributing members of society, men and women approaching retirement do best when they wipe the slate clean, lay the past to rest and consider retirement a remote proposition somewhere in the distant future.

Happiness comes from within, and is well within reach — no matter what stage of life you’re in.

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