In the opening line of one of his sweeter songs, James Taylor sings, "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time." And now there appears to be data to support his assertion.
For four decades, Dr. George Vaillant of Harvard Medical School led the "Study of Adult Development," which has followed the lives of more than 700 men born around 1929. The group of men was fairly homogeneous — all were white and entered early adulthood during a time of relative prosperity after World War II. But they differed on which end of the social ladder they originally came from. One group of men grew up in poor inner-city Boston, while the other group of men were relatively privileged Harvard graduates.
Over the years, Dr. Vaillant and his research group have described factors that lead to happy or unhappy work lives based on men's lives. They also have shown how a person's success or failure at work influences his intimate relationships as well as the likelihood of developing depression or alcoholism.
When the men reached retirement age, the researchers published a description of what may be the sources of a satisfying retirement in the American Journal of Psychiatry (April 2006).
The Surprising Findings
The wealthiest men and those with the most prestigious jobs retired at a later age. The Harvard graduates stopped working an average of five years later than the inner-city men. But social class and intelligence didn't appear to affect retirement age.
Rather, other factors, such as a physical disability, a mental illness, or a history of poor functioning at work or in relationships, led men to retire earlier than those who weren't affected by these circumstances. The early retirees were also less happy.
A man's success or failure during his work life didn't always have the influence on retirement satisfaction you'd expect. Two case histories from the study demonstrate how surprisingly happy — or unhappy — retirement can be regardless of the past. One man grew up under very tough circumstances and left school after the ninth grade. Through much of his life, he worked in a variety of dead-end part-time jobs and took little interest in adult responsibilities. Then at age 55 he started a full-time casino job. He worked his way up to become a professional card dealer. Having found work he enjoyed, he gave up a gambling addiction. He retired seven years later and enjoyed a highly satisfying retirement spent reading history books, playing softball, and enjoying his relationship with his wife, children and grandchildren.
A second man, on the other hand, who grew up in a stable family, was very successful in business. He was forced to retire at age 65 due to arthritis. Work had been the main focus of his life and his most satisfying accomplishment. It was also his only interest, despite pride he expressed about his children and a stamp collection. Without anything meaningful to replace work, he rated his post-retirement years as unsatisfying.
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The Secrets to a Happy Retirement
What these stories illustrate, the authors suggest, is that retirement can give a man a fresh chance at happiness; but it also presents some risk. A large pension fund, midlife success (job status, income), and moving to the Sunbelt didn't insure a contented retirement among the study participants.
The men who were the most satisfied with retirement were much more likely to say that they enjoyed relationships (specifically their marriage), were active as volunteers, and filled their leisure time with hobbies they enjoyed. They were creative and social, and found meaning in relationships, helping others, writing or following their musical ambitions.
Dissatisfied men were less engaged with the outside world. They found little meaning in their activities, and they seemed to kill time rather than enjoy it, for example, by watching television or gambling.
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Develop Your Capacity To Play
Retirement, with its lack of structure and abundance of time, challenges men who have organized their lives around work to find a meaningful replacement. The men who are happiest in retirement, according to this research, are those who have built fulfilling relationships and who haven't forgotten how to play. The men who have been creatively and playfully engaged in hobbies and relationships prior to retirement probably make an easier transition than men who define their satisfactions only using external markers of success, such as status or money.
There's no reason to stop enjoying the status or the compensation that comes with doing your job well. But retirement often means leaving those gratifications behind. This study suggests that for the sake of a happy retirement, it's never too early to learn to play well with others.
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Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is looking forward to a happy retirement, but for the moment he enjoys working as the editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter. He is also associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been practicing psychiatry for over 25 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Harvard Longwood Psychiatry Residency Program.