How to Live Like You’re Already Retired

The late poet Mary Oliver never worked an interesting job in her life, just as she wanted it. Her fear was that it would take away valuable time and energy from her true passion — writing poetry.

As she explained in an interview:

I was very careful never to take an interesting job. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it… Believe me, if anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or five and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day – which is what I did.

I am not a full proponent of her idea. If you spend eight or more hours a day at a job, it helps to have at least some interest in what you do.

Still, Oliver makes a good point: There is no reason not to allocate more effort to the things that give us joy and less to the things that don’t.

It may sound trite. But honestly think about how well you do this?

I know I could do much better.

Recently, I struck up a conversation with the grandmother of a boy my sons were playing with at the park. She was a retired accountant who opened a mission for underprivileged children in one of Detroit’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

I thought to myself, I want to volunteer at a place like that… some day, when I have the time.

Most of us are guilty of waiting to do something until an ideal future arrives, which is never guaranteed to arrive.

In the financial industry, we mostly sell people on the idea of an ideal future that affords them total control over their time to do whatever they want. In other words, retirement. But why focus entirely on the future when we can live to some degree like that now?

There is a lot of research that shows what things unequivocally help retirees live a healthier, happier and more meaningful life (one of which is volunteering). Those same studies and surveys actually tell all of us how to live better lives right now. Because the benefits of those activities encompass all age groups. Essentially, if you want to lead a more fulfilling life, then do the things retirees are told to do to make the most of their remaining years.

As Oliver encourages: give yourself permission to put forth your best effort toward the things that provide happiness and meaning while half-assing the less important stuff in life.

It is something I certainly need to get better at, which is why I have begun to reframe life as if I were retired. That is, putting more intention behind the things I do, with less consideration of what other people and society thinks.

Here are the steps I am taking to try to do that.

Note: I understand that I speak from a place of privilege. When you have to work three jobs to put food on the table and don’t have healthcare, thinking about ways to make your time more meaningful is unhelpful. So, I recognize this is a parochial blog post, generally for those who have the luxury of mismanaging their work-life balance and for those who write to those same people.

Do the one thing known to make everyone happier: help others.

One of the top activities workers say they want to do in retirement is volunteer. For good reason. By helping others, you help yourself.

Of the 239 older adult volunteers surveyed by the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis: 79% said they feel better about themselves by volunteering; 95% said they have improved their lives; and 96% said they have been involved in meaningful activities.

There is no age requirement for generosity. As many people turn inward with materialistic and technological outlets for a sense of satisfaction, the real trick is to not think about yourself at all.

Keep learning.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from an intoxicated member of a country club where I valeted in college. I was asked to pick him up from a gentleman’s club and drive him home. During the ride, he told me to never stay at a job where you’re not learning anything.

Because of the higher risk of cognitive decline, mental health becomes more important as we age. Hence, the many brain games and other activities geared toward older adults. But you’re better off the earlier you start making mental acuity a priority, and the best preventive steps is to learn new skills.

Many psychological studies suggest the challenge of learning a new skill can enhance memory, strengthen the connections between parts of the brain and lower the risk of dementia. Learning a new language, for example, can help improve thinking skills and memory abilities regardless of what age you start.

If your job isn’t your passion, make your hobbies your identity.

Work provides many perks, including a place to socialize, a sense of purpose and, of course, money and benefits. But for many people, like Oliver, their job is not their identity. Therefore, hobbies should be treated more seriously in society, not just as a way to pass the time.

That is why retirement is often thought of as an opportunity to do all those interesting things we wish we had more time to do while working.

The benefits of hobbies go far beyond simple enjoyment. Hobbies are associated with a variety of physical and psychological benefits, such as lower blood pressure, better fitness and reduced stress. One study even suggests the outdoor exposure and physicality of gardening increases longevity.

Art in particular doubles as a form of therapy, leading to lower stress, improved memory and better overall mental health.

As author Neil Gaiman said during his inspiring commencement speech:

“Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art.”

Move around — a lot.

We all know exercise is important. Physical activity makes us physically and mentally healthier. Without the time constraints of a job, retirees often make exercising more of a priority, as it helps improve mobility and ward off health issues.

We could probably all move more each day. And that doesn’t mean two-hour gym sessions. The simple act of walking increases the supply of blood and oxygen to your muscles and organs, which helps you think and come up with new ideas. It explains why many famous writers were known as avid walkers.

Experience new places.

A common aesthetic of retirement marketing is of older adults traveling abroad — walking a cobblestone street, prancing on a white sandy beach, gazing over the railing of an ocean liner. Who doesn’t want to travel more?

Traveling somewhere new has been shown to boost emotional IQ, empathy and creativity in travelers. It doesn’t tough require a passport.

There are new places all around us to explore. Visit a new part of your city. Eat at a new restaurant. Hike a new trail.

Schedule consistent time with friends and relatives.

The majority of workers said they plan to spend more time with friends and family during their retirement years, according to an HSBC survey. Of course, distance along with work, kids, etc., are valid reasons why we don’t spend as much time with loved ones as much as we want.

But when you consider how essential socializing is in life, there is an incentive to find creative solutions for spending more time with friends and relatives.

Now that nearly all my friends have started families, we have adapted. Our time together is shorter but at greater frequency. Instead of a long night out, it is a half hour coffee break, a Sunday softball league, a quick run through a park.

Accept life’s hardships.

Nothing can insulate you from tragedy. It is a fact of life. The sooner you can accept it, the easier it is. It’s why older adults, having years of both good and bad experiences, tend to be happier.

As journalist John Leland writes in his book, Happiness Is a Choice You Make:

“Older people are more content, less anxious or fearful, less afraid of death, more likely to see the good side of things and accept the bad, than young adults.”

The happiness curve suggests that life hits its low point around age 50. Perhaps by aligning our mindsets to those in the later innings of life we can avoid that dip.

If you can go through the hard times with grace, then you can live a full life no matter how much time your money can buy.

Friday Five

New York Times’s Paul Brown on what to do when you have enough

One of the best in the biz provides a personal reflection on knowing when you have enough wealth.

The importance of thinking in a non-dualistic way

Few things in life are black and white, especially when it comes to investing and tackling our behavioral biases. Health researcher and author Brad Stulberg writes about training yourself to stop thinking “either-or” and starting thinking “both-and.”

What a simply facial feature can mean for a person of color

This is the best thing I’ve read all week. It is a powerful, well-written story about how a small thing can represent a much bigger world. Read and learn.

Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on how to be productive — even during a pandemic

I don’t know any geniuses that don’t also enjoy working hard. I don’t know that many geniuses, I guess. But I also don’t know many people that make stuff that inspires me that haven’t put in the work. If you have this thing you discovered that you love to do in your time on this planet, most people seem to understand that that’s something to be honored.

Friday Fiction: The fall classic, “It’s Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get my hands on some fucking gourds and arrange them in a horn-shaped basket on my dining room table. That shit is going to look so seasonal. 

12 thoughts on “How to Live Like You’re Already Retired

  1. I believe the happiness curve is real and exists because you simply have more to deal with at age 50. You are peaking professionally, and the stress/demands are highest. Your parents are struggling with their health or age. Your kids, no matter how perfect, consume a large portion of your care and attention if you’re teaching them and mentoring them all along the path to adulthood. The mental drain grows as their concerns become more mature and their actions have long term implications (high school and early college). You feel the pressure of saving for retirement even greater, and you have less control than ever. Savings are now the smallest driver of returns, the market has taken over being the biggest variable, and you can’t predict it much less control it. You also may be experiencing health problems.

    As someone who is pretty naturally happy, these things have combined to slow me down a bit. However, as I’ve moved through my early 50’s, some things are starting to improve, I can see it. I figure in about 7 or 8 years, many of these concerns will resolve, one way or another. I expect to see happiness dividends from all the effort I’m putting in now. I suspect that’s more or less true for most people.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your story and insight! I agree with you. The pressure at mid-life to prepare for a transition to late-life is difficult for most. You make a great point that happiness sometimes works like money, you may have to sacrifice some today to receive more tomorrow.

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  2. Wise words, thanks for sharing!
    I especially love “if anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or five and write for a couple of hours.” There’s been plenty of research to show that leaders and wealthy folks are much more likely to get up early and have a routine. Sure, the poet’s routine was about writing, but for people who have other passions, the morning is a fantastic time to pursue your dreams.

    (written at 5:14 am)

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