The Secret to a Long & Happy Retirement

The Secret to a Long & Happy Retirement

November 23, 2020

For decades, scientists have tried to uncover the secrets to long life.  Lest you think it’s all due to good genes, recent studies have determined that only about 25% of the variation in human longevity is due to genetic factors. This means that the other 75% is due to lifestyle[1]

While there's no doubt that genetics, diet, and physical activity play a part, the secret may lie south of Japan, in the islands of Okinawa.  In his excellent TED talk on "How to Live to Be 100", journalist Dan Buettner describes the archipelago as "ground zero" for world longevity. 

The island boasts five times more centenarians than the United States, one-fifth the rate of colon and breast cancer and one-sixth the rate of heart disease.  The world’s oldest living female population lives here, and the residents have the longest disability-free life expectancy in the world. The people of Okinawa believe the secret to living a longer, happier, and more fulfilling life can be found in one word - Ikigai.  Like many Japanese words, there’s no good English translation but it can be loosely described as the source of value in one’s life or the things that make one’s life worthwhile.

In 2008, researchers from the Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine analyzed data from 50,000 participants, studying the association between the sense of “life worth living (ikigai)” and mortality.  Those who reported having ikigai in their lives had reduced risks of cardiovascular diseases and lower mortality rates.  Seven years after the study, 95% of respondents who had ikigai were still alive, compared to the 83% who didn’t.[2]

Unfortunately, many Americans’ senses of purpose are found in their work. As I've written about before, retirees often fill their first year or two of retirement with hobbies that may have gotten neglected during their working years such as golf, fishing, or reading.  Initially, having the time to devote to life’s simple pleasures can bring on a sense of joy or freedom.  These feelings tend to fade however, leaving many wondering "is this all there is?"  A 2012 study in the Journal of Happiness Studies by Elizabeth Mokyr Horner, PhD, of the University of California, Berkeley, found that retirees tend to experience a "sugar rush" of well-being and life satisfaction directly after retirement, followed by a sharp decline in happiness a few years later. How do we ensure we can enjoy many years of retired bliss?[3]

3 ways to find meaning after work:

Stay Social with a Regular Routine  

Finding purpose is great, but that can sometimes feel like an overwhelming task.  An easier starting place for fighting retirement depression is simply to create and follow a schedule.  You need to get dressed, get out of the house, and see people.  Get out your calendar and write down places to go and people to see on a regular basis!  You might consider starting a coffee club where you meet up with friends every day for a cup of something warm and conversation.  Set a specific day of the week to visit the library and find a new book.  It is a free resource full of ideas and inspiration.  Another option is to take a class in anything at all you are interested in.  Your local college may allow for free auditing of classes, and local community centers may offer art, cooking, and exercise classes for a reasonable cost.  Start a book, cooking, or travel club to discuss ideas with friends.  In some ways, it doesn’t really matter what you do, it is just important to do something (anything).  Odds are that by doing something, you’ll find a new passion or purpose.


Yes, I realize that working after retirement sounds a bit like an oxymoron, but it is increasingly common and can be enormously good for your mental health.  Work gives you purpose, a schedule, and lots of mental stimulation — all things proven to be beneficial to your mental health.  Working in retirement provides us with the opportunity to do something that we love and get paid to do it.  This can be an entirely different line of work without morning traffic, deadlines, or unpleasant bosses or co-workers.  Instead, this is about doing something that feels meaningful and important - regardless of the size of your paycheck.

Consider a downshift into retirement instead of going cold turkey.  Going directly from a full-time job and not enough time in the day, to working zero hours per week can be a massive shock.  If you are not yet retired, consider ways to ease into it instead of making an abrupt transition.  Some employers offer phased retirements, where employees can gradually reduce their hours over the course of a few years until they’re fully retired.  A study led by Mo Wang, PhD, of the University of Maryland, found that people who pursued post-retirement bridge employment in their previous fields reported better mental and physical health than those who retired fully.[4]


Perhaps the best way to give yourself a sense of purpose is through volunteerism.  Retirees and Seniors are the largest sector of volunteers in our country, and what better way to continue working than to contribute to the well-being of your community?  Volunteering provides an opportunity to explore interests that may have gone unfulfilled during the busy and stressful time of working and perhaps raising a family.  It can provide routine and structure, as well as keep your mind sharp by learning a new skill.  If you are the social type, it provides an opportunity to meet new people.  A long-term study published in the Journal of Aging and Health found that one of the 3 factors that influenced longevity and contentment was altruism.  Those participants who participated in altruistic activities were more satisfied with their lives after retirement.[5]  Where do you begin?  Examine your interests and connections, and then reach out.  The civic-minded might enjoy volunteering with the Board of Elections or organizations such as Lions Clubs or Rotary Clubs.  Many retirees indulge a love of animals by seeking out local shelters and pet adoption agencies.  Your church, the public library, and senior centers in your town may also have opportunities to serve. 

We spend a lot of time in this blog discussing what makes for a happy and fulfilling retirement.  In my experience, many people believe once they hit "their number" they can pack up their desk and plan their retirement party.  While they often ask questions like "How much money will I need?" and "Am I saving enough?", I rarely hear them asking "What will I do with all this time?" and "How will I find purpose after work is done?

Interestingly, in the Okinawan language there isn't even a word for retirement.  This reflects their belief that if you're doing something that you love and makes life worthwhile there would be no reason to stop doing it.  As you leave the 40-hour work week behind, take a cue from what many call the ‘Land of the Immortals’ and find your Ikigai.  Not only will it give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning, it might also help you live longer!


[1] Passarino, G., De Rango, F. & Montesanto, A. Human longevity: Genetics or Lifestyle? It takes two to tango. Immun Ageing 13, 12 (2016).

[2] Reuters Health (1 September 2008). Lack of joy in life ups early death risk: study.

[3] Horner EM (2012). Subjective well-being and retirement: analysis and policy recommendations. Journal of Happiness Studies; DOI 10.1007/s10902-012-9399-2

[4] Reuters (22 October 2009) Working after retiring can be good for your health: study.

[5] J Aging Health (Feb 25 2013) Altruism, Helping, and Volunteering: Pathways to Well-Being in Late Life 


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