Retirees’ secret to happiness? Giving back

‘Helping people in need’ trumps ‘spending on me’ in a poll of seniors

Mike Blake/Reuters/File
A member Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol in San Diego calls into police dispatch as he and his partner respond to an accident. Members of the patrol include former airline pilots, paramedics, and military personnel. The unarmed patrols spot stolen vehicles and free up regular officers for other duties.

Thinking of a retirement full of cruises to each of the Seven Seas? Or maybe an expedition to Antarctica, or lolling in a bungalow in Bora Bora?

For those who’ve carefully stuffed their pennies in their piggy banks for years an exotic trip or two may be an eye-opening and rewarding experience.

But a retirement based on trying to check items off some kind of bucket list of novel experiences may only leave people feeling “depressed and disconnected,” cautions psychiatrist Marc Agronin in a recent commentary in The Wall Street Journal.

What really generates happiness, he says, are connections – to family, friends, and to some wider community. In fact, if you travel too often you may begin to feel like a stranger in your own home while, at the same time, those important human connections have begun to wither.

Some 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 have now begun to retire in large numbers. During the recent recession demographers wondered if they might decide to stay in the workforce longer because of financial concerns. But they seem to be leaving full-time paid employment pretty much “on schedule” based on historical norms.

What should they do now?

Merrill Lynch and Age Wave, a consultancy that looks at retirement trends, recently asked retirees which of two things would make them happier: “spending money on themselves” or “helping people in need.” Three times more of the respondents said “helping people in need” than “spending on themselves.”

Retirees who give of themselves in the form of financial support or through hands-on volunteering report benefits that include more self-esteem, better health, and, yes, more happiness than those who don’t donate or volunteer.

They also report that their chief reason for making financial contributions as “making a difference in the lives of others” – far more important than being able to take a tax deduction.

The Merrill Lynch-Age Wave study predicts that over the next 20 years retirees will voluntarily give back to society some $8 trillion – $6.6 trillion in cash to charitable causes and another $1.4 trillion in the value of the 58 billion hours of volunteer work they will perform.

Volunteering, it turns out, returns many rewards to the giver. Retirees report that it’s not the income but the friendships and camaraderie that they most miss about their working lives. Volunteer work can open new paths to connect and find social interaction.

While the age group with the highest percentage of adult volunteers are those with school-age children, their volunteer activities tend to center around those that directly benefit their children. But because retirees are free of work and child-rearing duties they are able to offer much more of their time as volunteers – and they do.

In whatever way they choose to give back, many retirees will be doing it with a sense of gratitude for the good they have experienced in their own lives. They’ll be following Winston Churchill’s advice: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”

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