Some of us will leave our full time jobs and, if we are lucky, have three (or even four) decades in good health. It can be challenging to figure out how to spend your time once you are done with full-time work. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all retirement plan and many of us will continue to work in some capacity. I’m one of those people who obsessively researches everything, so when I became interested in coaching people as they move into retirement, I spent considerable time reading the research. I’ve distilled it down to a few key recommendations to get you thinking about how to plan the next chapter in your life.
Don’t Isolate Yourself
There is clear research that people who engage in meaningful activities and forge strong connections with other people live happier, healthier and longer lives. This may sound obvious, but I was shocked at the risks associated with not doing these things. Many studies have now shown that socially isolated people face serious health risks–in fact, experts have learned that isolation can literally kill you.
In one study done at Stanford University, researchers found that socially isolated people face health risks comparable to those of smokers. In addition, their mortality risk is two times greater than that of obese people. And, as if that wasn’t alarming enough, this study found that people ages 55-64 are less likely to be socially engaged than people of the same age in previous generations. Those of us who are Baby Boomers are less likely to have meaningful interactions with a spouse/partner than people in the past. We also have weaker ties to family, friends and neighbors, and are less likely to engage in community activities than those who were the same age twenty years ago.
Other studies have shown that social isolation is bad for your health and that having good social relationships can help people live longer. One ”meta” study analyzed data from 148 different studies with a total of over 300,000 people who were followed for an average of 7.5 years. The results indicated that people with good social relationships have a 50% reduced risk of early death compared to those with poor social relationships, again an effect similar to quitting smoking. So whatever you decide to do with your time, make sure to include activities where you interact with other people on a regular basis so you don’t become isolated.
Do Things That Make You Feel Useful
In addition to staying socially connected, we all need to feel useful. One study of people in their seventies in several cities across the United States shows that feeling useful to others as we age is critical. This study shows that a persistently high level of feeling useful to others is associated with a significantly lower risk of death. Conversely, people with persistently low feelings of usefulness experienced a greater likelihood of dying. While we are working full-time, we generally feel that we are useful and contributing to society. I think this applies to full-time caregiving as well. When my daughters were young, I left a career as a lawyer, and spent part of their childhood staying home and volunteering. Even when I wasn’t working full-time, I felt I was doing something useful. Volunteering helped me feel useful even when I wasn’t working at a traditional job. As I later learned, research consistently indicates that volunteering confers enormous mental and physical benefits to those who volunteer. And those benefits are especially potent for those who volunteer later in life.
In a study done by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on an Aging Society, researchers found that volunteering in later life is associated with a reduced risk of hypertension, higher well-being, better cognition and lower mortality. And it appears that volunteering can actually reduce your risk of developing dementia! One Swedish study found that those who volunteer in later life have lower self-reported cognitive complaints and a lower risk for dementia, relative to those who do not volunteer. Other studies have also shown that volunteer work leads to better self-reported health, higher life satisfaction and decreased rates of depression. The converse is also true–the overall the lowest quality of life was found for people who never volunteer, regardless of their age.
Clearly many people derive a lot of satisfaction from volunteering, but even if you don’t volunteer you can obtain similar benefits by doing other activities, as long as you find them meaningful. So while it might sound obvious, think about how you spend your time, and how much time you spend doing activities that are really meaningful to you. If you can increase time spent on those activities that you find meaning in, whatever they are, you’re likely to be happier.
Think of Yourself as “Young”
It turns out that the old cliche “you’re only as old as you feel” is actually true. At least it’s supported by recent research. Studies have shown that older adults who felt younger than their years displayed more grey matter in key brain regions than others who felt less youthful. One study from Korea which used MRI brain scans to measure grey matter volumes in brains of people 59-84 years old, found that those who had a younger “subjective age” (that is felt younger than their chronological years) scored higher on memory tests, considered their health to be better, and were less likely to report depression. In addition, those who felt younger than their “real” age showed the characteristics of a younger brain on MRI tests. These findings suggest that feeling subjectively older than one’s age may actually result in faster brain aging, whereas those who feel subjectively younger may have better-preserved brain structures. Decide you are young and your brain could follow suit!.
Whatever age you are now, as you think about your life going forward, try to do these three things: 1) Stay connected with your friends and family; 2) Do activities that are personally meaningful and where you feel useful; and 3) Think of yourself as younger than your actual age.
Joan is a former attorney who has worked in the private and non-profit sector. She has served on the board of several non-profits, and co-founded the Preeclampsia Foundation. She is a Certified Retirement Coach.