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For many, retirement presents a long dreamed-of opportunity to pursue goals and experiences that had the demands of work and family deferred for decades. But for many of the same people, retirement also presents an unexpected challenge, as that sudden burst of freedom threatens to wash away habits, routines, and disciplines carefully cultivated to keep their careers on track.
But the happiest retirees are those who take on their later years with the same active, engaged, and even courageous mindsets that they maintained during their working lives. And so the key to having a happy retirement is managing that new freedom, either by adapting old approaches or acquiring entirely new ones.
The bottom line: to enjoy the freedom of retirement, you’ll need to develop habits, routines, and mindsets that will allow you to actively engage with life for the long haul. In this article, we’ll break down five habits to make your retirement more fulfilling.
1. Keep yourself (or get yourself) in better shape.
Of course, nothing threatens an active engagement with life more than problems with your health. Ironically, though, when it comes to aging, the greatest threat to being able to stay active is . . . inactivity. As noted by the website Aging.com, studies have shown that physical inactivity is the number four cause of death in the world.
But even short of death, a lack of exercise is one of the things that can make aging more difficult to handle. Stamina and strength naturally decrease as people get older, but most of that decrease comes from physical inactivity.
For those who keep active, however, the benefits are enormous. As the experts at Aging.com point out, keeping active can improve seniors’ emotional well-being, make them more resistant to disease and injury, and improve chronic conditions like high cholesterol, diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s. Exercise can also make seniors stronger and more fit, making other forms of activity—from walking with friends to taking care of grandchildren—more attractive.
What’s more, these are all benefits that can show up soon after starting an exercise program, so it’s not as if you need to have been a competitive athlete before you retired to get healthy in your later years. In fact, you don’t even need to have exercised before you retired to benefit from using your increased free time to get more active.
So what should you do to get physically active in retirement? As it turns out, improving your health through activity can be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. As we noted in our article on the benefits of walking every day, putting more steps in your routine can lead to a number of benefits.
For one thing, walking is a low-impact exercise that’s perfect for someone who may just be getting out from behind their desk for the first time in years. It’s also a good exercise for someone who might have other health issues that render more strenuous activity impossible.
And as we discussed in our article, starting a walking habit can be as easy as getting some walking shoes, investing in a pedometer, finding a convenient place to walk (a nearby park or mall), or just finding more reasons to get up and move around in general.
In other words, walking is a habit you can easily make a part of your day, and it’s also a place to start for a more active, healthier, and more enjoyable retirement.
2. Develop routines that allow you to seize the day.
Of course, walking won’t help you get in shape unless you make a habit of it. And making a habit of walking means coming to terms with one of the essential components of an enjoyable retirement: developing strong, reliable routines.
That may sound counter intuitive. After all, getting out of your workday routine may be one of the things you’ve been looking forward to the most. But research shows that it’s hard to enjoy all that new leisure time unless you’re prepared to manage it effectively.
According to a study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, setting up systems to manage one’s leisure time effectively is more important than the raw amount of free time available when it comes to retirees’ perceptions of their quality of life.
“It is important to educate people on how to use their free time more effectively,” says Wei-Ching Wang of I-Shou University in Taiwan, the lead author on the study. “Quality of life is not affected as much by the amount of free time,” he adds, “but on how effectively the person manages this time on hand.”
What, though, would this sort of time management look like? Bob Lowry, a blogger and retiree who has experimented with various approaches to structuring his time, recently wrote about his experiments with time management at his Satisfying Retirement blog. For a short period after he left the workforce, Lowry, a former consultant in the music industry, tried an extremely rigorous time management system similar to the highly-planned calendar and daily schedule he’d used during his working life.
When he found this too rigid, and too likely to create conflicts with his wife, he switched to avoiding time management altogether. But this approach left him unsatisfied. “Finally,” he writes, “I settled on a time management system that I continue to use: a blend of schedules, to-do lists, and free-flow.”
By adapting the approach he took in his working life to the new freedom he had in retirement, Lowry found the mix that worked just right for him, keeping him on top of essential tasks and giving him the ability to plan activities that gave him purpose, while providng the freedom he needed.
“Fear of boredom or being unproductive are common,” Lowry writes. “It takes time to understand how to use your time in a way that is satisfying to you.”
If you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, you may find that you have trouble getting back into the flow of setting up schedules and to-do lists. But managing your time in retirement can provide enormous benefits, and can make it easier to build up other beneficial habits like a regular exercise routine.
In other words, you can think of all the elements of time management—from setting goals, to setting schedules, to managing to-do lists—as a keystone habit, and give them priority over other retirement activities, you won’t be limiting your freedom in retirement: you’ll be unlocking the door to more possibilities than you may have imagined when you left the workforce.
3. Stay on top of your finances.
Like time management, keeping on top of finances is another habit from working life that sometimes gets neglected in retirement. As Forbes.com senior contributor Laura Shin explains in an article on retirees’ common financial mistakes, “having your days free to yourself can be intoxicating.” With all that freedom to travel, socialize, and pursue other passions, it can be easy to overspend, and that, Shin says, “can put you on a track to outliving your money.”
Moving from having an annual salary where you can always earn more to having a fixed income that depends on preserving a finite pool of investments can also present a challenge to retirees. So as you develop routines for a happier retirement, consider adding regular financial check-ins to your to-do list.
When you check in, go over your expenses, your investments, and your attitudes toward money. And keep in mind that the same financial habits that keep younger people in the black can help you ensure that your money lasts as long as you do, enabling you to have a retirement free of worry about financial issues.
In fact, if you manage your money successfully, you may be able to go beyond financial freedom and acquire a growth mindset when it comes to your retirement savings. This is important, because a too-conservative approach to your retirement fund can hurt you almost as much as a strategy that’s not conservative enough.
On this subject, consider the advice of Henry Hebeler, a former president of Boeing who now offers seminars on financial planning to his fellow retirees. Like Shin, Hebeler emphasizes the importance of following ordinary common sense when you approach your finances—live within your means, take account of inflation, understand the ways that growing older can increase expenses.
Hebeler goes beyond this advice, however, by recommending that retirees continue to look for opportunities for financial growth. Since retiring, Hebler says, he and his wife have “given away more than the savings we started with,” but still have managed to double their nest egg.
One way he’s accomplished this is by having an investment approach that’s slightly more aggressive and responsive than most financial advisors suggest. He and his wife put more money in riskier stocks and other equities—and then, Hebeler says, their rule has been “to not do any reallocation unless the allocation got more than 5% off target.”
In other words, while most advisors suggest gradually moving from stocks to safer investments like bonds or CDs, Hebler had success by monitoring his investments and only selling out when he felt the risk wasn’t paying off.
“This really helped in the stock boom years,” Hebler writes, “and did not hurt me badly when prices fell.”
4. Develop age resistance.
It’s easy to talk about taking more risks with your finances, but, as with looking to become healthier, deciding to build wealth rather than deplete it requires rethinking what it means to be older. And as it turns out, rethinking aging is essential to a happy and healthy later life.
That’s because researchers have found that it really is true that your attitude toward aging—in particular whether or not you have a negative attitude toward aging—can have a profound effect.
While it is the case that growing older brings with it some unavoidable downsides, it’s becoming clear that you can escape many of these consequences for a lot longer if you can free yourself of the assumption that these downsides are inevitable.
“We don’t need to age the way most people presume that we need to age,” says Dr. Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard, in a recent interview. “Much of the debilitation that we experience is a function of our mindsets, not a function of the natural aging process . . . if you expect to fall apart, then you fall apart.”
Langer has arrived at this conclusion after many years studying how people’s attitudes can amplify or minimize the effects of growing older. She’s famous for leading what’s known as the Clockwise Study, which was conducted in 1979 and involved moving a group of elderly men into a home that was designed to look like a throwback to the late 50’s.
During the course of the study, the men were encouraged to pretend as if they were in fact living in the world of two decades earlier. “For all intents and purposes,” Langer says, “it was that earlier time.” The result? The men’s vision, hearing, memory, strength, and cognitive abilities improved. They even looked younger.
Langer isn’t the only researcher who has identified the ways that mindset can influence the aging process. Dr. Becca Levy, a researcher at the Yale School of Public Health, has found that if older persons can acquire positive beliefs about old age, they’re less likely to develop dementia.
“We found that positive age beliefs can reduce the risk of one of the most established genetic risk factors of dementia,” Levy says. “This makes a case for implementing a public health campaign against ageism, which is a source of negative age beliefs.”
Short of a public health campaign, though, how can you overcome your preconceptions of what it’s like to get older? One strategy is to develop mindfulness. If you can stay mindful, you’re going to be better able to identify negative thoughts about aging, making it easier to escape their influence.
If you’re new to the concept, mindfulness is simply the practice of focusing on the current moment, accepting it without fear or judgement, and separating yourself from the constant demands that your inner thoughts make on your attention.
Research shows that people can reap a number of significant benefits from being more mindful, including improved memory and concentration, reduced anxiety, improved sleep, and pain relief—all things that can improve quality of life in our later years.
More to the point, however, mindfulness has also been shown to reduce implicit age bias. By focusing on the present moment and letting go of your judgements, you can also let go of the sort of negative prejudices that may have convinced you that aging is a bad thing.
If you’re older, that should give you sufficient reason to begin to practice mindfulness, and if you’re ready to begin, you should start with our article on how to bring a mindfulness practice into your life.
5. Find a purpose, no matter how large or small.
As we noted, mindfulness can have powerful benefits even apart from helping you rethink aging. In fact, if you’re looking for ways to keep sharp throughout the aging process, mindfulness is one of the most powerful tools you can access. But there’s one more habit that you’ll need to develop if you want to unlock the full potential for happiness that retirement can offer.
Because keeping fit, managing your time and money, and escaping the mindsets of aging don’t mean anything if you don’t take advantage of the way that all these habits can broaden your horizons. So while all these other strategies are essential, they aren’t necessarily ends in themselves. Instead, they’re best seen as a means of enabling you to reliably set goals and give your life in retirement a purpose.
“People who have the sense that their life is meaningful are much less likely to suffer early mortality,” says Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush Univeristy Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, in this NPR interview. “They’re less likely to suffer strokes. They’re also substantially less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.”
In short, according to Boyle, having a purpose makes it more likely that someone will thrive as they grow older.
That purpose doesn’t have to be particularly lofty: to maintain physical and mental vitality for the long haul, your goal can be as simple as learning a new language, improving your golf score, or becoming a competent woodworker. But it helps to have areas in which you want to improve, and it helps to have more than one area to work in. For some inspiration, here are some retirement bucket list ideas.
“The happy retiree group had extraordinarily busy schedules,” financial planner and author of You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think Wes Moss recently told Money.com. “I call it hobbies on steroids.” So what’s the best number of hobbies for optimal happiness? According to the results of a survey Moss conducted among 1400 retirees across the country, three or four activities turned out to be the magic number. (Check our our list of hobbies for seniors to choose yours!)
Note, though, that Moss found that social activities—things like volunteering and golf—led to more happiness than solitary pursuits like fishing or reading. “The happiest people don’t do things in isolation,” Moss says.
So how do you find a purpose in retirement? That’s the great thing: whatever you choose doesn’t have to be all-consuming to bring you satisfaction, and whatever you choose also doesn’t have to pay the rent. You’ll still need to avoid all the temptations that can lead you to choose more passive pursuits: our article on how to kick the TV habit is a great place to start.
Final Thoughts on Habits That Will Make Your Retirement Fulfilling
So, there you have it: if you can keep yourself fit, manage your time, relegate your finances to a secondary concern, and maintain a positive attitude about aging, you can seize the day every day after you retire. But never forget: the secret to a happy retirement goes beyond setting up a framework that allows you to get active.
Once you get active, in order to reap the maximum rewards, you’ll have to have a purpose to stay active. If you can manage that, however, your habits and your sense of purpose might well guarantee you the happiest retirement possible.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Madison Cunningham
Madison Cunningham is a content writer at Aginginplace.org with a passion for helping seniors and their loved ones make informed decisions about aging in place. She has written on topics ranging from finding the correct Medicare plan, selecting the best home health care provider to the benefits of volunteering as a senior. Madison is committed to providing unbiased, informative and engaging content to help seniors live the fullest lives possible.
You can read more from Madison at www.aginginplace.org.