Finding Your Bliss: Retirement Edition

5 minute read

There are hundreds if not thousands of opinions on what it takes to find happiness.  The Dalai Lama said “Happiness is not ready made.  It comes from your own actions.”  Mother Teresa said, “There is no key to happiness; the door is always open.” Pearl S. Buck said, “Growth itself contains the germ of happiness.”  And of course, the great philosopher Charlie Brown said, “Happiness is a warm puppy.”

Personally, we’d side with Brown, though in all seriousness, we actually don’t have to pick sides to find the answer, or answers, as the case may be. For the past 85 years, there has been an ongoing scientific study dedicated to giving us some data on what works, what doesn’t, and what we can all do to make our lives a little brighter on a day-to-day basis.  The Harvard Study of Adult Development – the longest scientific study on happiness and adult development – has been researching, watching, and learning from the lives of thousands of Americans for over 80 years and two generations.

Although the original cohort recruited for the study is largely deceased, the research has been expanded through the years to include spouses and 1,300-plus offspring from the original group.  Today, the research is helmed by Dr. Robert Waldinger, who in addition to directing the study is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, as well as a Zen teacher and practitioner.  He’s also the author of the new book, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.  He talked us through the things that can help build happiness toward the second half of life – and the ones that can’t.


WATCH Your Money Map: Finding Your Bliss: Retirement Edition

On July 26, 2023, Robert Waldinger, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School joined Jean Chatzy for an episode titled What Does It Mean to Live a Happy Life? We all want to feel like we’ve had a fulfilling life, but sometimes that big-picture goal falls on the back burner as we work hard to develop our careers, grow our wealth, and build our families. As you approach retirement, you might have more time and experience to reflect on what truly matters. How will you make the most of your retirement years? Jean Chatzky and Robert Waldinger, director of the world’s longest scientific study on happiness, discussed the psychology behind fulfillment and how money fits into the equation.

Relationships Above All

The biggest factor in maintaining happiness as you age is having other people in your life – i.e., cultivating and maintaining relationships.  Strong relationships, the study shows, are better predictors of health and happiness than social class, IQ and genetics.  Much of the work the study has done through the years focused on marriage as the primary relationship (Waldinger notes that the members of the silent generation and young baby boomers who made up the original cohort were largely in traditional marriages, so there was a large proportion of them in the sample.)  And it found that happy marriages mattered a great deal.  For participants in their 80s, happy marriages enabled even people who were suffering from physical pain to remain in a good mood much of the time.  Unhappy marriages? Not so much.

But the marriage license in and of itself isn’t the ticket to bliss, Waldinger points out.  Living with a partner also works as does having good friends who, among other things,get you to go out for dinner and keep you engaged and active.  Interestingly, strong relationships turn out to be just as important to men as to women, though they often manifest differently.  “Women will sit and confide in each other over a cup of tea,” says Waldinger.  “Men play basketball.”  Both work.

Health Goes Hand-In-Hand

Being in a committed relationship is a predictor of both health and happiness as you age.  Think about it, if you live with (or spend a lot of time with) another person, that’s someone who gets you to eat, reminds you to take your meds, to get up and do things, or to go out for a walk.  “A lot of the effects are obvious,” says Waldinger.  “Living with someone means you have someone else to initiate doing the things that make us healthier and happier.”

Focusing on your health in and of itself also pays off in happiness.  Taking care of yourself by doing things like exercising regularly, not abusing alcohol or drugs and maintaining a healthy weight tends to translate into more years of living without chronic illness or disability.  It also matters a great deal to your mental health, Waldinger points out.  “There have been studies of older adults who walk 20 minutes per day,” he says.  “They stay sharper.  And, you don’t have to run marathons.”

Money Matters, But Not The Way You Think

Where does money fit into the happiness equation?  Of late, there are two differing schools of thought.  Princeton’s Daniel Kahnemann won a Nobel Prize for his work documenting that once you have enough money to live comfortably (around $75,000 a year) more money doesn’t (measurably) buy more happiness.  On the flip-side, the University of Pennyslvania’s Matthew Killingsworth published a paper in 2021 showing that having a higher income (above $80,000) does have the ability to contribute measurably more to day-to-day happiness.  So, these two researchers got together and collaborated on a paper where they managed to meet in the middle.  They essentially agreed that if you’re a happy person by nature, as you make more money beyond your basic needs, happiness does go up.  But if you are unhappy, and you’re looking to more wealth to make you happy, it’s not going to do the trick.  Bottom line: If you have a purpose for the money – preferably one outside of yourself or one that promotes socialization  – chances are better that it will be additive.

In his book, Waldinger summarizes part of this debate by saying – “When money is scarce, and basic needs cannot be met with certainty, life can be incredibly stressful, and in this situation, every dollar matters. Having a basic amount of money allows people to meet those needs, have some control over life.”

Sometimes Age Is All It Takes

One of the most reassuring pieces of information to emerge from the study is that as a species, we get happier as we get older.  “It seems paradoxical,” Waldinger says, “but it’s true.”  And it’s true for two reasons.  The first is biological.  As we age our brains change in a way that shifts our attention away from what’s negative and toward what’s positive.  We also remember those positive things more, he says. The second is that we start to realize that our time is limited.  “As you realize you’re eventually going to die, you either deliberately or unconsciously start making choices that prioritize your wellbeing,” he says.  That includes things like not hanging out with people we haven’t enjoyed in a long time.  Eliminating obligations we’d rather not undertake.  Not doing things that feel like chores.  And yes, making time for things that bring us more enjoyment.  Like puppies.  Particularly warm ones.

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