The Science of Retirement Happiness

10 ways to build a healthier, happier and more fulfilling retirement

Planning for a successful retirement involves a great deal more than money, even though questions about finances receive the lion’s share of attention. For this article, we have investigated the most recent scientific data and research on human happiness to glean 10 ideas for optimizing retirement that are not all about money.

The Good News

With the largest cohort in history reaching age 65 in 2011, ‘retirement‘ is approaching its zenith – and the good news is plentiful. The percentage of Canadian seniors living in poverty has dropped from 35% in 1976 to 7% in 20131. On the other end of the spectrum, seniors now make up 42% of millionaires and have almost doubled their median net worth from 1999 to 2012. The only age group to have a higher median net worth is the group about to retire, which bodes well for the financial security of these future retirees.

Not Just Sunshine and Beaches

Despite retirement improving for most seniors, not everyone is experiencing the sunshine and beaches glamorized in retirement brochures. Retirement involves tremendous change – and increased stress.

A 2013 UK study looked at the physical and mental health of a group of retirees versus people who continued to work past traditional retirement age. The findings were surprising. Rather than work taking a physical or mental toll as one might expect, the group who stopped working experienced an increase in the likelihood of depression (by 40%) and physical ailment (by 60%)2.

Why would this be? Perhaps many retirees do not achieve the grand and enduring sensation of freedom that they expected but instead experience the loss of a daily structure, personal relationships or identity that comes with meaningful work. This sense of loss is heightened likely by the decrease in social connections that many people face after their 60s3.

Men, in particular, tend to have smaller social circles than women, and their relationships tend to revolve more around work4. As a result, our experience with retirees has indicated that support networks for men can decline more significantly than for women in retirement. As the following research shows, though, stress and depression after retirement are not exclusive to men.

While ‘Retired Husband Syndrome’ was an anecdotal account written in 1984 by U.S. doctor Charles Johnson5, a 2014 study by Italian researchers found that increased stress levels among women whose retired husbands are at home during the day does appear to exist. Their results showed that almost 50% of the women surveyed experienced increased levels of stress or depression after a spouse’s retirement. This may seem like a dated concept with more women than ever in the workforce, but the researchers found the situation was even more pronounced for women who continued to work after their husbands retired6.

This recent research provides a clear message: for the success of our retirements and the health of our families, we need to discuss more than just money.

10 Habits for a Happy Retirement

In reviewing recent publications, we have found 10 habits that retirees and pre-retirees can implement to better enjoy their retirement years. Most are not new ideas. Hopefully, with the additional time that comes with retirement as well as a little planning and effort, these can become daily habits towards health and happiness.

We have divided these solutions into three categories: Active, Personal, and Social.


1) Exercise

Studies outlining the positive effects of exercise are ubiquitous and plentiful. However, exercise is not only good for our bodies, but also a recommended treatment for depression.
New guidelines in the 2016 edition of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry endorse exercise as a “first-line treatment” for mild to moderate depression. The official recommendation is a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise three days per week7. These guidelines are supported by studies from Pennsylvania State University showing direct correlation between levels of exercise and feelings of enthusiasm, as well as studies from the American Psychosomatic Society showing better recovery from clinical depression with physical activity8.

2) Invest in experiences

It turns out the Beatles were on to something when they sang ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ back in 1964. Research clearly supports the idea that spending money on experiences like travel, evenings out, concerts, new hobbies and volunteer adventures enhances happiness much more than material purchases9. This is particularly true when experiences are shared with friends and family. Having loved ones share life’s unique events enables us to re-live what we have done, providing greater participation and happiness beyond the experience itself.

The surprising metaphor that best exemplifies ‘experiences over things’ might be the family cabin. While a cottage could be considered a physical asset, this basic description does not illuminate its emotional power. The strength of the cottage is not its growth potential, but rather its shared experiences – like Dad making pancakes on Sunday mornings, little Billy falling out of the tree, or Jenny finally getting up on one waterski after a summer of trying. These memories are brought back every time a family member visits or thinks about this shared space. As a result, the family cabin and similar experience-promoting purchases may be a wise use of our dollars.

3) Have a (metaphorical) heart attack

While high amounts of stress can be detrimental to our health, a small amount of the right kind of stress is positive and necessary for our system. One of the challenges that comes with retirement is finding effective ways to test ourselves. How do we achieve this positive form of stress?

Commit to doing something that scares you. Put in a paid application for a 10-kilometre race, take a painting course and find a local café that will showcase your art, or book your first sky-diving lesson. Challenging ourselves forces us to focus on the task at hand and enables us to live fully and appreciatively in the moment while ignoring all else. It is the polar opposite of ‘multitasking’, a myth which has been shown unequivocally to lead to a reduction in both productivity and happiness10,11.

4) Mindfulness

Meditation, often associated with the 1950’s Beat Generation and 1960’s Hippie movement, has been practiced in India, China, Japan and other countries for centuries. Most recently, it has regained attention as psychological research has begun to show that meditation and ‘mindfulness’ have genuinely positive effects on the brain.

Just as moments of high, positive stress can cause us to focus on the task at hand, meditation can enhance one’s ability to concentrate on living in the moment (also known as ‘being mindful’). Studies of all types of people, ranging from Buddhist monks to U.S. Marines, have shown that meditative practice enables brains and bodies to “recover from stress” more quickly12. Areas of the brain that deal with compassion and self-awareness have been shown to grow after completing courses in “mindfulness meditation” according to researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston13. In addition, deep prayer may provide similar benefits to meditation since worshippers of all faiths report higher levels of happiness14.


5) Practice purpose

In his book The Happiness Equation, Neil Pasricha explains a happiness concept from the Japanese island of Okinawa. ‘Ikigai’ translates as “the reason you wake up in the morning”15. Pasricha cites ikigai as one of the primary reasons that Okinawans have incredible longevity, with a life expectancy seven years more than the average American’s. With the loss of “How was work?” and “What do you do?” as tools for social connection, the reason for getting out of bed may no longer be obvious for many retirees.

It’s important for personal physical and mental health that purpose continues to exist in our lives. Pasricha recommends not only considering what we are most passionate about or where we can have a positive impact on the world, but also writing it down. An ‘ikigai card’ can be as simple as a cue card with one sentence that communicates our reason for getting out of bed. Placing it on our bedside table reminds us every morning why we should jump up and get on with our day.

6) Document more

Just as an ikigai card helps to solidify and remind us of what is important, there are additional ways to recognize and celebrate the gift of each day. One example would be to consider keeping a Gratitude Journal. The goal is to write at least one item a day for which you are thankful, or that makes you smile, or provides you with happiness. A series of studies from the University of California and University of Miami found that activities like this increased happiness, energy, optimism and health for participants16.


7) Get social

Humans are inherently social creatures. Even the most introverted needs contact and connection with other people. These personal connections are so important that researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that people with strong social networks report good personal health at a rate two times higher than people who are isolated17. Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, our social connections peak in our early 60s and then decline18. As a result, retirees must continue to actively invest in positive relationships.

Luckily, many of the activities that we recommend in this article – such as exercise, volunteering and investing in experiences – also can have a strong social component. Arrange for the entire family to take a vacation together. Take a dance class. Commit time to community, your place of worship, or seniors’ groups that have regular social activities. As we get older, we need to make decisions that put us into social situations.

Getting social is an important factor to consider when we decide to move out of our own home. Research indicates that the optimum time to move to a shared facility is prior to age 80, far younger than many retirees think18. In addition, when choosing a retirement home, give as much priority to the social activities provided and the proximity to social centres as you would to the quality of food, staff or facilities.

Happiness increases with hours of social time (Age 65 and older)

8) Give

While it is common to think that charity should be done strictly from the goodness of one’s heart, scientific research tells us that it also has an incredible ability to increase our happiness. Doing good to others makes us feel good. From the point of view of maximum happiness, we should give much and give often – and by giving, we do not always mean money.

While financial giving is a symbol of generosity, volunteering can be just as powerful for one’s own happiness. One Harvard study found participants who volunteered were 14% more likely to report good health17. In addition, even random acts of kindness have been proven to endow the provider with an increase in happiness19.

9) Talk

As we have mentioned in a number of previous articles, communication around finances is one of the best habits that families can create. Are you and your spouse on the same page as to how time will be spent in retirement? This not only includes special situations like vacations, but also day-to-day activities.

It is important that we are open to starting conversations, as well as receiving questions, about how we are enjoying retirement. While many retirements prove to be exciting and fulfilling, it is often a spouse or family member who first realizes when a retiree may not ‘be themselves’. As the research shows, retirement has its challenges and the more we recognize and discuss that fact, the better it will be.

Understanding the signs of depression can be a good start. These often include simple things like changes in sleeping or eating habits, additional feelings of fatigue, increased alcohol consumption, and changes in personality such as increased irritability or aggression20. Recognizing these symptoms can provide the opportunity to try the suggestions in this article, or to speak with a medical advisor.

In addition, one of the often surprising challenges for men as they get older is a drop in their testosterone, called Andropause20. Many of the symptoms of depression are similar to those exhibited with Andropause. Luckily, open discussion with family members and family doctors can help diagnose the root cause of the symptoms.

In this regard, family members should know who they can speak with if they perceive an issue. We highly recommend that retirees introduce their family members to key advisors, both financial and medical, to open a dialogue and contribute to the process of optimizing retirement happiness.

10) Put money in its place

While the thesis of this article is that a happy retirement is about so much more than money, to relieve stress and ensure the achievement of retirement goals we must have our financial house in order.

Start by covering the basics. Complete a personalized financial plan with up-to-date, realistic return and expenditure assumptions. In addition, consider the reasoning behind expenditures. One of the best ways to ensure an unhappy retirement is to try and ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Comparing ourselves to others will inevitably sow the seeds for mental distress. The psychological research is clear in this regard: Of two people with the same income, the one living in the wealthier neighborhood will report being less happy21. Our recommendation is to be genuine about the amount you expect to spend, as a reasonable level of expenditure that ensures your savings last for your entire retirement will definitely reduce stress.

Next, ensure you understand how you will collect a ‘paycheque’ after you stop working. A concrete retirement income plan can help in this regard. A strong income plan should balance the desire for regular income with objectives for acceptable investment risk levels, tax reduction and estate planning.


As successful families have often planned retirement finances for years or even decades, expectations for this stage of life can be high. Happy retirements need to go beyond finances. The best retirements include:

  • Investing in experiences with the people we love,
  • Taking a little time every day to exercise and be thankful,
  • Focusing more on memories and less on things, especially lifestyle items owned by other people, and
  • Recognizing and helping people who may not be experiencing the same fortunate life as we are.

Combining these elements in a way that is active and social will create a retirement that is personally fulfilling, which is the ultimate measure of a successful retirement.

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  1. “Seniors and the generation spending gap”. Tamsin McMahon. Maclean’s September 6, 2014. 
  2. “Retirement ‘harmful to health’, study says”. BBC News May 15, 2013. 
  3. Health and Retirement Study 2012 via “Planning for Retirement Living: The Financial Implications of Aging” video presentation by Michael Finke, PhD.
  4. “Planning for Retirement Living: The Financial Implications of Aging” video presentation by Michael Finke, PhD. 
  5. “The Retired Husband Syndrome”. Commentary by Charles Clifford Johnson, MD. The Western Journal of Medicine October 1984. Pages 542 – 545. 
  6. “Stressed Wives Suffer ‘Retired Husband Syndrome’”. Bill Gardner. The Telegraph August 21, 2014. 
  7. “For mild depression, try jogging, yoga, or any form of aerobic exercise before drugs, psychiatrists say”. Sharon Kirkey. The National Post August 24, 2016. 
  8. The Happiness Equation. Page 20. Neil Pasricha. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 2016
  9. The Science of Happiness: New Discoveries for a More Joyful Life. Pages 18-19. Time Inc Books Special Edition 2016.
  10. The Science of Happiness: New Discoveries for a More Joyful Life. Page 13. Time Inc Books Special Edition 2016,
  11. The Happiness Equation. Page 22. Neil Pasricha. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 2016
  12. The Science of Happiness: New Discoveries for a More Joyful Life. Page 28-29. Time Inc Books Special Edition 2016.
  13. The Happiness Equation. Page 23. Neil Pasricha. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 2016
  14. The Science of Happiness: New Discoveries for a More Joyful Life. Page 31. Time Inc Books Special Edition 2016.
  15. The Happiness Equation. Page 101-103. Neil Pasricha. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 2016
  16. The Science of Happiness: New Discoveries for a More Joyful Life. Page 56. Time Inc Books Special Edition 2016.
  17. “Social networks and volunteering linked with good health worldwide”. Karen Feldscher. Harvard School of Public Health February 28, 2012. 
  18. “Planning for Retirement Living: The Financial Implications of Aging” video presentation by Michael Finke, PhD. 
  19. The Happiness Equation. Page 21. Neil Pasricha. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. 2016
  20. “The Secret Sadness of Retired Men”. ThinkAdvisor June 30, 2014. 
  21. The Science of Happiness: New Discoveries for a More Joyful Life. Pages 54-55. Time Inc Books Special Edition 2016.
  22. Chart 1: “Planning for Retirement Living: The Financial Implications of Aging” video presentation by Michael Finke, PhD. 


Disclaimer: The information contained herein is for information purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. Any investment advice provided by Pavilion Investment House will only be delivered pursuant to the terms and conditions contained in an Investment Counsel Agreement. The information provided is based on asset class, security, and investment data and projections that are generated by Pavilion Investment House using 3rd party sources, assumptions, models, and methods that are consistent with investment industry standards and are partially based on specific expectations and assumptions made by Pavilion Investment House. Although Pavilion Investment House takes all steps to ensure that it presents information for which it has reasonable basis and grounds, there can be no warranty, guarantee, or assurance, implicit or otherwise, that the projections contained within this presentation will occur exactly as stated. Where historical statistics are used, they are used for illustrative purposes only. Historical performance is not to be construed as being indicative of future performance. Historical statistics use publicly available index or mutual fund returns (where appropriate) and may not include all fees or taxes associated with implementing an equivalent strategy. © 2016 Pavilion Advisory Group Ltd. No part of his publication may be reproduced in any manner without our prior written permission.