Is a Busy Retiree a Happy Retiree? It Depends …

Experts have repeatedly pointed up the salutary effects of staying busy in retirement, arguing that activity confers physical and mental benefits and leads to greater happiness. But it isn't necessarily true.

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We’ve been moving away from the notion of retirement as a carefree period of leisure for at least a couple decades. It started with the longevity revolution. Willfully fading away to irrelevance makes no sense when you realize that you have another 30 years. Looking at the new mortality tables, millions of retirees began to want to do something with their time.

For those who didn’t necessarily think that way, along came the lost decade in stocks and the Great Recession to shove them down the path of continued productivity. They simply did not have the nest egg they needed to give up gainful employment as early they would have liked.

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Psychologists and other experts have repeatedly pointed up the salutary effects of this new paradigm—the oxymoronic working retirement. Staying active late in life, they have asserted, confers physical and mental benefits and leads to greater happiness. This is now commonly accepted wisdom.

But is it true? That depends, say the authors of a new study at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. They drew a distinction between those who are merely involved in an activity and those who are engaged. They define engagement as a higher level of involvement that goes to “one’s subjective experience of deep connection to something positive, meaningful, invigorating, and inspiring.” They found that engagement is essential to gaining the benefits of being active.

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In other words, staying busy isn’t enough; you have to actually like what you’re doing. Working just for the money at a later age may allow you to pay your bills but it does little to lift you psychologically and bolster your physical and mental well-being. Indeed, the researchers found few differences in well-being between people who were involved in an activity (but not engaged) and those who had nothing whatsoever to do with the activity. Yet at every age level (not just retirees) and across all four activities they studied—paid work, volunteerism, continuing education, care giving—they found that greater engagement went hand-in-hand with greater well-being. From the study:

“Being involved in one of the four activities but not feeling particularly excited about it, dedicated to it, or challenged by it — aspects of engagement — is about as good for one’s well-being as not being involved in the activity at all. However, the well-being of those who are highly engaged in any of the four activities appears to be considerably enhanced.”

The study concludes that the well-being gap between those who are engaged and those who are merely involved is most extreme among folks over age 65, suggesting that the quality of the experience is most consequential for people in later life.

This resonates with an earlier survey by Civic Ventures and the MetLife Foundation, which found that 31 million people ages 44 to 70 say they want to work after quitting their primary career, and that they expect their “encore career” to give them a sense of meaning and accomplishment.

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