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Money, Happiness, and a Fulfilling Retirement

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Shortly after I retired, I listened to a lecture by my former internist, now a gerontologist. He underscored what he termed the "two keys to a long life." The first was, "Use it or lose it." The word "it," made infamous by former president Clinton, refers in this case to the mind and the body 



Bear with me here.  Having just turned 70 myself I find this posting on a healthy retirement quite relevant and while only a few of you are at this stage now, hopefully all of you will be at some point down the line.  The posting is from Chapter 30 in the book, The Prudent Professor: Planning and Saving for a Worry-Free Retirement From Academe, by Edwin M. Bridges. Published by Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia 20166-2102. []. Copyright (c) 2010 by Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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Money, Happiness, and a Fulfilling Retirement



You can't buy happiness.

With age 95 looming far into our future, most of us worry more about outliving our nest eggs than about leading a happy, fulfilling life. Now ten years into my retirement, I realize that focusing solely on financial planning is myopic. If you manage to save a lot of money for retirement, you may later discover that money can't buy happiness or a fulfilling life unless you have planned for it. Achieving happiness and a fulfilling life in retirement isn't easy. I know because I didn't plan for it, and I have only been partially successful.

Use It or Lose It

Shortly after I retired, I listened to a lecture by my former internist, now a gerontologist. He underscored what he termed the "two keys to a long life." The first was, "Use it or lose it." The word "it," made infamous by former president Clinton, refers in this case to the mind and the body. According to Dr. Walter Bortz, research suggests that watching television is not the way to use your mind. Studies of brain waves show that TV viewing produces the same brain wave activity as staring at a blank wall. Unfortunately, I watch more TV than is mentally healthy because I enjoy watching movies, sporting events, and the news. Breaking this viewing habit remains a challenge for me.

For mental stimulation, I solve puzzles, read about politics and investing, and write books. In my first year of retirement, I wrote a memoir which I titled, "Looking in the Rearview Mirror." Wishing that I had known more about the lives of my father and mother, I thought my children and grandchildren would appreciate learning about mine. After my daughter read a draft, her only comment was, "Dad, it's all about you." Maybe, just maybe, she and her three brothers will some day come to appreciate that it was all about me. My next writing project focused on retirement planning and investing, topics that I thought might be beneficial to my children, grandchildren, and friends. Reading and trying to learn about topics that were foreign to me proved challenging and stimulating. My third book, A Problem-based Approach to Management Education, was written with a former student, Philip Hallinger, and built upon our previous work. I haven't yet decided on my next writing project.

To keep physically fit, I walk daily-usually 30-40 minutes, sometimes longer. Most of the time my companion is a Sony Walkman tuned to National Public Radio (NPR). Several years ago my wife and I hiked a lot, but her arthritis and bad feet limit her physical activity. Occasionally, I walk with a friend or a former student. Although I enjoy listening to NPR, I find it more enjoyable to walk and talk with someone else. Recently, I began to supplement my walking with a 25-minute exercise program Sit and Be Fit, which I recorded on my digital video recorder. Together, the walking and additional exercise have improved my emotional and physical well-being.

There are countless ways in which one can use it rather than lose it. I chose activities that I enjoy. To live a fulfilling life to 95, choose activities that you enjoy and provide a workout for your mind and your body. Spending all day in front of a TV screen does

not fit the bill.

Make Yourself Useful, or What's the Job Description for the Rest of Your Life?

To drive home the second key to a long, fulfilling life, Dr. Bortz recounted an experience he had as a young lad. His grandfather owned a grocery store in rural Pennsylvania. From time to time young Walter visited the store and stood around hoping for some candy from his beloved grandfather. One day his grandfather looked at him and said, "Walter, make yourself useful." That comment stuck with him and has become a mantra for living his life.

To make yourself useful, consider volunteering. There is ample research evidence demonstrating the value of volunteering in promoting happiness, health, and longevity (see Harris & Thoresen, 2005). Serving others brings meaning to your life and rewards you with the "Helper's High." You can serve others through formal or informal volunteering. Apparently greater benefits occur to those who volunteer formally rather than informally. If this is the case, several of my friends have an edge on me. They are formal volunteers, whereas I am an informal one. A friend of mine grew up on a farm and developed a useful set of carpentry skills. When he retired from his professorship, he volunteered to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. Each year he supervises the construction of six to eight homes for the less fortunate. Another friend runs a men's group at his church and pursues his academic interests in health and psychology at a local university. A third is a retired college president who chaired a national campaign to raise money for cystic fibrosis, a disease that afflicted his two granddaughters. He also chairs the board of an art institute.

As for me, I never developed the habit of becoming a formal volunteer. For much of my life, I devoted my time to work and family. When I was 36, my concern for family heightened during a taxicab ride from O'Hare airport in Chicago. I engaged the cab driver in a conversation. He talked about his life. I learned that he had worked three jobs so that he could buy a home on Lake Michigan and cars for his wife and children. As a result, he spent little time with his family. In the end he was estranged from his kids, and his wife divorced him. His final comment had a profound effect on me, "I lost what I had, and what I had was more important than what I wanted." From that moment on I decided to devote even more time to my family. Consequently, I have a reasonably good relationship with my four children and have been happily married for more than 55 years. As my wife said on our Golden Wedding Anniversary, "We like as well as love each other." By emphasizing work and family, I neglected those activities that might have stood me in good stead as a retiree, namely, volunteering and becoming active in social and church groups.

My sense of usefulness derives mainly from helping former colleagues, friends, and my children with financial decisions that face them. Occasionally I speak to a group about retirement planning and work with individuals who are contemplating retirement. Though I feel reasonably competent to help others in making decisions about investments and retirement, I have discovered that many are reluctant to discuss their financial affairs with someone whom they know. From time to time former students come by my home and seek advice as they cope with a range of problems. Others phone me from distant places and use me as an executive coach. Still others drop by to talk and share what is going on in their lives. These activities nourish my spirit and afford me a taste of the "Helper's High."

If formal volunteering appeals to you, I suggest you develop the habit years before you retire. The transition to retirement will be easier. According to what I have learned, your skills and wisdom will more likely be welcomed if you have cemented yourself in the volunteer organization before you retire. Three good starting points for finding volunteer opportunities are listed below:

Administration on Aging (202) 619-0724. (Help older people in need.)

The National Retiree Volunteer Coalition (800) 899-0089 ext. 5091 (Work with universities and local governments.)

Senior Corps (800) 424-8867 (Helps seniors find opportunities in their local community.)

Additional Keys

My former internist overlooked two additional keys to living a happy, fulfilling, and long life in retirement: being socially connected and religiously involved. Putting all of your emotional eggs in one basket can be dangerous to your physical and mental well-being (Coontz, 2006). Retirees especially need to broaden their social connections, people whom they enjoy and in whom they confide. If your spouse is the only one with whom you discuss important matters, you will become socially isolated when that person dies or becomes incapacitated. That happened to a friend of mine's father; having no one else can be devastating. It is important to establish close social and emotional ties beyond your nuclear family. I am fortunate that I have several friends with whom I share my fears, concerns, and matters of personal import. Though I believe in God and try to lead a Christian life, I do not attend church regularly. Some of my friends have an edge on me because they attend church regularly, and regular churchgoers tend to live longer than those who do not.

As you think about retirement, factor into your thinking the need to plan for a long, happy, and fulfilling life. If your financial house is in order, you could benefit from adopting the philosophy of Milton W. Garland, an active centenarian and inventor. He said, "Live like you're going to live forever, not like you're going to die tomorrow."


If you want to learn more about how to live a happy, fulfilling life, read Get a Life: You Don't Need a Million to Retire Well by Ralph Warner (2004). It will help you prepare for retirement better than any book that I have read.