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Retirement Realities

How your life after you stop working can be all it’s cracked up to be

By Jennifer Nelson

Most of us dream of the day we can punch our last time card and get to the business of retiring. Retirement has the allure of lazy days of relaxation, numerous activities, hobbies, travel and endless time for friends and family. What's not to love?

A vintage style photo of a person punching out at work. Next Avenue, retirement reality
"Many times, when we hear preparing for retirement being discussed, it is in the context of the financial preparation involved, but it is so much more than that,"  |  Credit: Getty

However, a recent survey by insurer Mass Mutual asked 2,000 retirees about how their retirement was going and found that a third of respondents weren't happier since retiring.

Unhappy retirees reported more loneliness and less romance than pre-retirement. Of those who were happier, 61% had paid off debt before retirement and half took steps to improve their health. No surprise either that the happier retirees fill their days with activities, loved ones, exercise, hobbies and travel.

So, what's the key to a retirement that's all it's cracked up to be? We asked some experts to weigh in.

Changing Attitudes

A post-pandemic survey conducted by OnePoll, the marketing division of the British news agency SWNS, found that retirees were changing their attitudes about stepping away from work, including how they save, what they want to do, when they want to retire and whether they want to add a pre-retirement stage as a transition to retirement.

Forty percent said the pandemic changed how they made health decisions, and 42% said it affected how they save for emergencies. Survey participants even shared how they thought those in retirement could still work up to 11 hours per week and remain retired.

"To have a happy retirement, being financially prepared is only one piece to a bigger puzzle."

"Many times, when we hear preparing for retirement being discussed, it is in the context of the financial preparation involved, but it is so much more than that," says Lawrence Sprung, a Certified Financial Planner, founder of Mitlin Financial, a financial planning firm on Long Island, New York, and author of "Financial Planning Made Personal."

"To have a happy retirement, being financially prepared is only one piece to a bigger puzzle that needs to be planned for, too," says Sprung.

In addition to the financial portion, he says, you also need to consider mental and social aspects of retirement that could mean the difference between being happy or not. "Without proper planning," Sprung added, "you can find yourself in a situation where you do not know how to fill these many hours with meaningful and stimulating things to do."

Plan for the Experience

People tend not to plan for the retirement experience until after they retire. "It takes being deliberate about developing plans before your retirement," says Joel Dietz, a retirement life coach who focuses on the non-financial aspect of retirement at Orange Door, his career, leadership and retirement coaching firm in Houston.

Dietz says that "one factor that influences retirement satisfaction is whether the retirement event was deliberate or involuntary (such as the result of a layoff or a health event that forced retirement sooner than desired.)."

Regardless, he says retirement has a predictable trajectory and the better you know and anticipate its stages, the more prepared you can be. They include:

  • Preretirement: Disengaging from your job in anticipation of retirement.
  • Retirement: The "event," such as a retirement party, an unexpected health event or lay off.
  • Honeymoon: Diving into travel, spending time with family and trying hobbies previously unexplored.
  • Disenchantment: Boredom, lack of purpose and loneliness. This is the "it's not what it's cracked up to be" phase.
  • Reorientation: Resurfacing from disenchantment to look for "what's next?"
  • Stability: A period of trial-and-error to discover new routines and alternative definitions of contentment.
  • Adaptation: Lifestyle changes to support changes in health, adding activities and new routines.

If you're well prepared and somewhat lucky, you might hit adaptation directly after the honeymoon phase and skip the disenchantment, but that takes careful attention to the other contributing factors of a happy retirement.

"Putting as much thought into life planning as we do with financial planning is a critical differentiator in retirement satisfaction," says Dietz.


Good health is crucial for enjoying retirement to the fullest. "My friends and clients who frequently exercise, maintain a balanced diet, get routine check-ups and stay active maintain their physical well-being so they can participate in activities they love," says Robert Valentine, a personal finance expert and founder of The Money Alert, a personal finance website.


In advance of your retirement date, find hobbies that you enjoy and activities that can help fill your newfound time. "Whether you enjoy golf, pickleball, volunteering at a charity or mentoring (or all of the above), you need to find meaningful things to do with your time," says Sprung. Try new things, lean into things you already love, or connect with groups of people with similar likes and interests.

Family and Friends

Retirees often find their situation unfulfilling when they aren't getting the socialization and emotional connection they need. "Even if you live with a spouse or partner, no longer having a full-time job often means your daily interaction with other people plummets," says Anna Harris, M.Ed., a clinical mental health counselor.


"So, having a more-fulfilling retirement may mean being more intentional about seeing other people — visiting your grandkids more often, spending more quality time with your partner and joining a club to socialize with other retirees on a frequent basis," adds Harris, who is also marketing director at Online MFT Programs, a site providing students with available marriage and family therapist programs in the U.S.

"Cultivating and maintaining friendships, staying connected with family members, joining community groups or clubs and volunteering can provide a sense of belonging and purpose in retirement," says Valentine.

Travel and Leisure

He adds that retirement offers the time and opportunity to explore passions and interests often neglected during our working years. Learning new skills, traveling, or pursuing creative endeavors can bring joy and fulfillment any time but during retirement, they're crucial. If there's a budget for travel, it can broaden horizons and create lasting memories.

The SWNS survey found that retirees' top four goals were:

  • Write a book, start a podcast or pursue a creative accomplishment (38%).
  • Explore your city or state (36%).
  • Learn, play a new sport, enter a race or practice yoga (34%).

The happiest retirees don't just collect nest eggs but plan for a whole new life. That involves more than financial considerations; it's about creating a fulfilling lifestyle for this new stage. By prioritizing experiences and fostering bonds with loved ones, you can create a retirement filled with cherished memories and purpose.

Photograph of Jennifer Nelson
Jennifer Nelson is a Florida-based writer who also writes for MSNBC, FOXnews and AARP. Read More
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