Does retirement guarantee a happy life?

Many people wonder: does retirement guarantee a happy life?  This is how I feel:  not necessarily.  It depends on each individual.

Here are some personal stories.

My dad:

My dad retired when he was close to the age 60.  He had been teaching the primary school students for over 30 years.  At the end, he was too tired to deal with the young kids.  I don’t blame him.  It was a tough job.

Finally he retired, and should be happy, right?  But, I don’t see him happier after retirement.

What’s the problem?  I may be wrong.  I feel that’s the general attitude toward life.  My dad is not alone.  In that remote village, many people look at life as half glass empty.  There is always something to complain about.

40 years ago, they had reasons to complain.  Yeah, life was very hard then.  Not enough food for 3 meals, and money was scarce.  Clothes were worn out.  Every family was poor and hungry.

But right now, food is plenty.  They got tons of material stuff.  Many families even have cars, and own a condo in the town.  They have the amount of cash they never had before.  Life still seems miserable to them.

It’s sort of abnormal to smile there.  If someone has a broad smile daily, people could question if anything is wrong, or if that person is insane.  They probably feel guilty about smiling, loving and enjoying life.  That’s why many people’s faces are so emotionless.

My dad plays keyboard very well.  He used to be part of a small band in that village.  He could sing, too.

One time, my cousin came over while I was visiting my parents.  My cousin has a beautiful voice.  She sang some folk songs.  My dad played the keyboard, and sang with her.  I watched proudly, beamed, and loved it.

Then I complimented my dad, and encouraged him to play more daily.  You know what he told me?  “I don’t necessarily like playing keyboard.  It’s just a way of killing the time.”  The phrase “killing the time” stunned me.

My aunt:

I heard the same phrase from my aunt.  She is retired, too, and used to be an anesthesiologist in a hospital.  She graduated from some vocational school in the late 1950s.

At that place, college education is not a prerequisite in order to be an anesthesiologist.  The same is true for a medical doctor.  Yes, it is a scary place, from the medical point of view.

Anyway, after retirement, my aunt has been playing the gate ball.  It’s a bit similar to golf, but is more primitive.

The game is mainly for seniors.  The ball is probably the baseball size.  The playground is much smaller, and is on the hardened mud ground.  No grass in that remote place.

My aunt joined a team, and plays often.  One day, she and I talked about the game.  I said: “That must be very cool.  Did you have fun?”  Unfortunately, my aunt replied in a familiar tone: “I don’t like the game.  It’s just a way to consume and kill the time.”

Wow, what a pessimistic attitude toward life.  Why kill the time?  Why not just enjoy it?

That’s something hard for me to understand.  I promised to myself, I’m going to be different from my dad and aunt:  I will enjoy my life, no matter what.

Happiness and retirement:

Work does consume tons of our time and energy.  This was my stress chart before the retirement.

You can see that, work caused me a lot of stress, 62% of the pie.  Money is always a concern, 19% tells the story.

And misc. stress is everything excluding work and money.  19% of the pie is always there.  It could be about relationships, traffic, environment, politics, etc.

After my retirement, 62% of the total stress is gone.  That’s a huge relief.  But, other challenges are still there.

I use the same pie chart to remind myself: retirement didn’t come easy, enjoy it.  And don’t inflate the money-related stress and misc. stress.  Try to keep them at the old level 19% for each.  They are not a huge thing to fuss about.

Instead, focus on my half glass full.

Sometimes, we are so eager to fill up the stress bucket or stress pie chart.  If we can’t find more stress, promote or magnify the existing ones.  That’s a sure way to misery.

Here is an example: while working, traffic jam was inconvenient.  Once a while, it took longer on the road.  But overall, it was a minor issue.

After retirement, we may not drive that much anymore.  It’s so easy to fall into the trap: become so impatient with the traffic.  Minor thing could be escalated to a major one.

Don’t raise the bar, and let the trivial things stress us out.

Is happiness a choice?  I feel the answer is yes.  Happiness is hard work, too.

It’s so easy to be unhappy, isn’t it?  It doesn’t require much effort to fall into that unhappy hole.  Every one knows how to get there.

Many times, I have to force my mind to think in a positive way.  Try to learn and develop the capability, skills and resilience, so I could handle the life ups and downs more gracefully.

Am I there yet?  No, I still have a long way to go.  This post serves as a reminder to myself:  try to be happy, and don’t be a whiner.

I have been keeping track of my happiness index.  This is more about life satisfaction overall, rather than the short happy moments.  The value 10 is the maximum, and that’s the happy land.  You can see that, there is always room for me to improve.

While working, I tried everything I could to be happy.  5.5 was neither great, nor horrible.  The retirement boosted my happiness index from 5.5 to 7.7, which is quite a lot.

One day, if I win the lottery, the index would probably jump to 8.5.  I won’t know it for sure until that day comes.

Just a side note:  all my numbers about stress and happiness are very subjective.  It’s just how I feel.  There is no strong evidence to support them.

Quick summary:

Retirement could make us happier.  But there is no guarantee for it.  It’s still up to each of us to make it happen.

In this World Cup season, for me, retirement definitely means watching more soccer games for fun.  Too bad both the US team and the Chinese team didn’t qualify.

Questions to our readers: Do you think happiness is a choice?  Will retirement make you happier?

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12 Responses

  1. Hi Helen, I think there is some sort of saying that there are only 2 guarantees in life: death and taxes.

    Having experienced freedom from full time work and working part-time now, I have found it’s easy to slip into the glass half full mode. Back in my professional career, unhappiness often centered around work and pushed other things out of mind. With full time work thoughts gone it’s easy to think about what’s not right in life rather than the 99% of stuff that is right in life. Retired or not, life is really what your thoughts make it and they can be positive, negative or anywhere in between having nothing to do with one’s work/retirement status. Just my humble opinion. Tom

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Tom, very true, only the 2 things are guaranteed.

      You are right. a full-time job did take a lot of precious things away, and framed our mind around the work and work. When I was working, I understood I should focus on my glass half full. But it was very hard to do so at that time. Right now, it seems easier, but I still have to realign my mind periodically. Being negative is easy and hurting, and being positive is hard and rewarding.

  2. Joe says:

    Retiring from full time work made my life so much better. I think my work related stress was closer to 90% of my stress. Getting rid of that was better than winning the lottery for me. Now, I’m very content most of the time.
    I think the older generation is more stoic because life was so much more difficult for them. They just don’t want to be too happy because it could come crashing down. Who knows…

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Joe, wow, 90% of the stress is work-related, that’s a lot. I’m so happy for you, that big stress became part of the history to you. Definitely, that sounds even better than winning a lottery.

      Yeah, I saw those unhappy and emotionless faces. It’s tough living that way.

      Enjoy the time in Iceland. I’m sure the local people are very proud of their soccer team, who just tied with Argentina. Quite an accomplishment.

  3. Steveark says:

    I was happy when I worked a high stress job and I’m happy early retired. Happiness is internal, and shines right through stress as long as the stress is manageable. I actually think happiness is impossible without some stress, they are not polar opposites. And Helen, stop playing the lottery or you’ll never get rich!

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Steveark, that’s great you managed the stress so well even when working. Not many people can do that. Very interesting point: “happiness is impossible without some stress”. I got to think about it. Regarding lottery, that’s good advice. Many people spend a lot on it. My annual budget is $52, that’s $1 per week, just for fun. I guess many lottery participants say the same thing, hehe.

  4. GYM says:

    I like your stress chart!

    I wonder what your dad or aunt would prefer to do rather than killing time. Have you tried asking them? I wonder if it’s a generational type thing. My mother in law likes to go out and go grocery shopping. She just goes out every day if there’s nothing to do. She says she grocery shops to kill time because there’s nothing else to do.

    I agree your outlook is derived from within.

    I think it’s similar to how some people like to watch TV to kill time. I watch so little TV, there’s so much more to be doing, like commenting on blogs or reading or writing! 🙂

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Thank you, GYM. I didn’t ask my dad and aunt what they like to do. My observation is, they like to find something to worry about or complain. They are not alone. Many people over there choose to live that way.

      Doing grocery shopping daily, your mother in law could get some fresh produce. That’s cool. When I lived in Beijing, there was farmers’ market in the early morning . Many people got up early, bought the super fresh veggie, and it was also a good walking exercise. Watching TV for too long may not be a great idea.

  5. caroline says:

    I never heard my mom try to “kill time”. She kept busy and learn new things. In her 70’s , she bought a computer, used the internet and became president of her condo corp. She also learn to swim! All of it at her own pace:)
    Part of being happy is definitely within, whether you are retired or not.
    Love your charts Helen, trying to figure out where my number would be but it is a moving target:)

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Caroline, thanks. That’s wonderful your mom keeps learning new things. Motivation and curiosity definitely help people to live a better life.

      Yeah, many things may be beyond our control. But there are still some that we can do ourselves. Attitude matters a lot. Even giving a small try is better than doing nothing.

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