The Golden Years – 5 Ways to Ensure a Happy and Healthy Retirement

After a lifetime of hard work, thousands of baby boomers are retiring in record numbers across the globe. Like any life transition, embarking on the transition from working life to retirement can be wrought with challenges and stressors, especially for those forced into retirement. Yet, it also opens up a window of opportunity to take a few simple steps to secure a healthy and happy retirement.

After retirement, some people plummet down the slippery slope to physical and mental health decline and premature death, while others are rejuvenated by the positive health effects of retirement and protect themselves from the bad, bolstering health and happiness and prolonging a vivacious and meaningful life into ripe old age.

The good news is that science is gradually unearthing the many secrets to a happy retirement, providing the retirement planning blueprints needed to capitalise on the health benefits of promoting positive lifestyle change on the healthy transition to retirement.

The power of belief in the golden years

Believe the hype; believe the stereotype… well the positive one anyway. Research shows that people that believe in positive and happy retirement stereotypes (e.g. living a hopeful, active, involved, healthy and meaningful life with more time for family, friends and pleasurable activities) have been shown to live up to 7.5 years longer than those who believe in negative retirement stereotypes (e.g. living a hopeless, inactive, uninvolved, lonely and meaningless life).

Some estimates indicate that simply believing in the golden years being golden provides a 41% decreased mortality risk and reinforces a happy retirement being a reality.

Other research indicates that fear of being lumped into an ‘old and unhealthy’ stereotype, known as healthcare-stereotype threat, can lead to healthcare avoidance and is linked with poorer global physical and mental health.

It has been suggested that simply knowing the powerful effects of believing and/or fearing stereotypes is half the battle. Reading this blog article may be enough to help people beat the negative effects of stereotypes down and invite the golden years in.

The power of world views

The hostile world scenario (HWS) is a personal belief system regarding the perceived threat to one’s own physical and mental health and wellbeing, which is more severe among minorities that suffer from stigma, such as members of the LGBT community.

Healthy uses of the HWS system include serving as an internal monitor of both actual and potential threats and adverse circumstances in the individual’s life, allowing vigilance towards dangers and maintenance of a sense of safety and wellbeing.

If this system is over activated however, it can lead to an overwhelming sense of a catastrophic world and is associated with a whole load of negative health outcomes that put both mental and physical health in jeapordy.

These include:

  • having increased difficulties in activities of daily living (e.g. eating, dressing, bathing, preparing a hot meal, shopping in a store, managing money etc.)
  • movement difficulties (e.g. reaching or extending one’s arms above shoulder level, lifting or carrying weights over 5 kilos such as a heavy bag of groeceries)
  • worse physical symptoms (e.g. resistant cough, swollen leg etc.)
  • worse medical conditions (e.g. diabetes, osteoporosis etc.)
  • worse depression symptoms
  • less satisfaction with life
  • less social activities

What makes having an overactive and negative HWS system be strongly predictive of poor mental and physical health in old age is currently unknown. Some suggest that an overactive HWS may amplify stress-related thinking leading to ill health, and/or that the HWS is actually a reflection of future predictions of the self and therefore may be like a self-fulfilling prophecy, a route to self-sabotage and self-defeat.

Conscious aging practices have been shown to help transform negative world views into positive ones that benefit health and wellbeing in retirement years. Conscious aging and world view transformation involves exploration of the pivotal role that our world view plays in how we see, understand and behave by using a multitude of exercises, such as meditation and nature-walks, that encourage self-reflection, self-discovery and reshaping of our world view.

The power of exercise

Research shows that some people get more physically fit after retirement, while others put their physical and mental health and wellbeing at risk, as well as their families, due to further increases in sedentary behaviour after stopping work.

For those that exercise regularly, benefits include: lower blood pressure; improved balance and reductions in mobility difficulties; improved health for those with conditions like diabetes, heart disease or arthritis; stress management and improved mood; an improved memory and prevention of cognitive decline.

However, research cannot yet tell us with any confidence what exactly helps some people get into healthy exercise habits after retirement compared to others. Nonetheless, it is resoundingly clear that adopting daily lifestyle habits, hobbies and activities that promote physical activity and avoid sitting down for long periods of time is a must for those wanting a healthy and happy retirement.

The power of socializing

It has been shown that how long a person expects to live is linked with future mental and physical health. Sadly but fortuitously, for lonely older adults, reminding themselves they have not so many years left protects against their feelings of loneliness fueling depression.

Rather than adopting this otherwise bleak outlook on life to keep one’s sanity, multiple lines of research indicate that working on having a thriving social life doesn’t only prevent the negative impact of loneliness, it can truly do wonders for health and happiness following retirement.

Meta-analytic evidence shows that people’s social relationships can predict how long they will live, and in fact, is a stronger predictor than other health behaviours such as physical exercise, smoking or alcohol consumption. Other studies also link vibrant social lives in older years with reduced depression and enhanced cognitive health.

A brand new study found that social group memberships in retirement, like book and lunch clubs, or arts or exercise groups, are associated with reduced risk of premature death. Specifically, retirees who had two group memberships prior to retirement had a 2% risk of death in the first 6 years of retirement if they maintained membership in the two groups, a 5% risk if they stopped attending one group and a 12% risk if they lost both groups. Furthermore, for every group membership that participants lost in the year following retirement, their experienced quality of life 6 years later was approximately 10% lower.

All in all, joining social groups and engaging in social activities is a smart move to ensure happy retirement. Also, if the social activity also happens to be physical, reinforce positive beliefs in retirement and reinforce positive views of the world it’s a win, win, win, win in support of healthy and happy retirement.

The power of driving

There is no legal age at which you must stop driving, but driving cessation is beginning to be considered an inevitable transition in the years around or following retirement, depending on one’s health. Some people may have decades of retirement years before stopping driving is on the cards, for others it may come hand in hand with retirement.

However, very few plan to stop driving and those that don’t make plans are at higher risk of poorer health, depression, institutionalization, attending less out-of-home activities and reduced productive social engagement, and the kicker, death. In fact, in one study, nondrivers were found to be four to six times more likely to die than drivers during the subsequent 3-year period following driving cessation.

Finding ways to maintain a future nondrivers’ productive roles and out-of-home activities may be key to preventing the negative effects of driving cessation.


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Image via PublicDomainPictures / Pixabay.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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