An 85-year Harvard study on happiness found the No. 1 retirement challenge that ‘no one talks about’
In 1938, Harvard researchers embarked on a study that continues to this day to find out: What makes us happy in life?
The researchers gathered health records from 724 people from all over the world, asking detailed questions about their lives at two-year intervals.
As participants entered mid- and late-life, the Harvard Study often asked about retirement. Based on their responses, the No. 1 challenge people faced in retirement was not being able to replace the social connections that had sustained them for so long at work.
Retirees don’t miss working, they miss the people
When it comes to retirement, we often stress about things like financial concerns, health problems and caregiving.
But people who fare the best in retirement find ways to cultivate connections. And yet, almost no one talks about the importance of developing new sources of meaning and purpose.
One participant, when asked what he missed about being a doctor for nearly 50 years, answered: “Absolutely nothing about the work itself. I miss the people and the friendships.”
Leo DeMarco, another participant, had a similar feeling: After he retired as a high school teacher, he found it hard to stay in touch with his colleagues.
“I get spiritual sustenance from talking shop. It’s wonderful to help someone acquire skills,” he said. “Teaching young people was what started my whole process of exploring.”
Taking on hobbies might not be enough
For many of us, work is where we feel that we matter most — to our workmates, customers, communities, and even to our families — because we are providing for them.
Henry Keane was abruptly forced into retirement by changes at his factory. Suddenly he had an abundance of time and energy.
He started volunteering at the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. He put time into his hobbies — refinishing furniture and cross-country skiing. But something was still missing.
“I need to work!” Keane told the researchers at age 65. “Nothing too substantial, but I’m learning that I just love being around people.”
To retire happy, invest in your relationships now
Keane’s realization teaches us an important lesson not only about retirement, but about work itself: We are often shrouded in financial concerns and the pressure of deadlines, so we don’t notice how significant our work relationships are until they’re gone.
To create more meaningful connections, ask yourself:
- Who are the people I most enjoy working with, and what makes them valuable to me? Am I appreciating them?
- What kinds of connections am I missing that I want more of? How can I make them happen?
- Is there someone I’d like to know better? How can I reach out to them?
- If I’m having conflict with a coworker, what can I do to alleviate it?
- Who is different from me in some way (thinks differently, comes from a different background, has a different expertise)? What can I learn from them?
At the end of the day, notice how your experiences might affect your sense of meaning and purpose. It could be that this influence is, on balance, a good one. But if not, are there any small changes you can make?
“When I look back,” Ellen Freund, a former university administrator, told the study in 2006, “I wish I paid more attention to the people and less to the problems. I loved my job. But I think I was a difficult and impatient boss. I guess, now that you mention it, I wish I got to know everyone a little better.”
Every workday is an important part of our personal experience, and the more we enrich it with relationships, the more we benefit. Work, too, is life.
Robert Waldinger, MD, is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, and director of Psychodynamic Therapy at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is a practicing psychiatrist and also a Zen master and author of “The Good Life.” Follow Robert on Twitter @robertwaldinger.
Marc Shulz, PhD, is the associate director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, and a practicing therapist with postdoctoral training in health and clinical psychology at Harvard Medical School. He is also the author of “The Good Life.”