Why Retirement is the Happiest Stage of Life

Focusing on the present instead of the future can lead to happiness.


When you’re 10 years old, you just can’t wait to be a teenager. When you’re a teenager, you yearn to be out of the house and away at college. When you’re in college, graduation can’t come soon enough. And when you’re toiling away at your career, you long for the day when you can finally slow down and retire. Then you retire and something happens, there’s nothing to look forward to.

[See 10 Key Retirement Ages to Plan For.]

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s actually nothing to look forward to. But in retirement, there’s no natural, next phase of life that we are anticipating. In fact, the next natural phase, death, is not something we look forward to at all. We spend our entire lives trying to put that one off.

Up until retirement, we live in a natural state of forward propulsion. We are working toward something. We are building a life, building a future. At retirement, all of that planning comes to a screeching halt, and that can be hard to adjust to. Sure, we look forward to a trip to Europe or a visit with the grandchildren, but we stop looking forward to the future with the capital F. Retirement is what we’ve worked for our whole adult lives. So how do we fantasize about our future when we’re actually living in it?

I have always thought that fantasizing about the future is one of life’s greatest pleasures. We get through all the difficult parts of other phases by daydreaming about the next one. Fortunately, scientific research says I’m wrong about this. A recent study by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert actually shows that daydreaming about the future doesn’t really make us happy at all. In fact, a mind that is wandering to the past or the future apparently makes us less happy. The happiest respondents in the Harvard study were thinking about what was happening at that given moment.

[See 5 Ways to Tell if You are Ready to Retire.]

This isn’t really a new finding. Positive psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called it flow, the act of being so involved while engaged in an activity that time flies. When you are sufficiently interested in what you are doing, your mind doesn’t wander to something else. Not surprisingly, those in the study who were engaged in the most, well, engaging activities, were the happiest, since their minds weren’t wandering away from the activity at hand. Among the most mind-engaging activities were sex, conversation, and meditation. Two of the activities that allowed for the most mind wandering were working and commuting to work.

[See 5 Ways to Keep Retirement Exciting.]

This is great news for those who have hit the retirement phase. Besides the fact that you’re no longer engaged in two of the activities most prone to mind wandering, your mind is also not obsessed with the next phase of your life. Since dreaming about your future actually makes you less happy, here is your chance to stop doing something that’s not really making you happy anyway. Without that next phase to dwell on, you are free to think about the here and now. You’re now free to live the future you had been fantasizing about.

Sydney Lagier is a former certified public accountant. Since retiring in 2008 at the age of 44, she has been writing about the transition from productive member of society to gal of leisure at her blog, Retirement: A Full-Time Job.