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Preparing Your Clients for Happiness in Retirement

By Adam Felts

Conversations between financial advisors and clients about retirement preparedness tend to focus on money. And that makes plenty of sense: Money is essential to accessing the things we will want and need as we age. But sound investments alone do not make for a sound retirement plan. There are other, equally important considerations that go into planning for later life. Who can you expect to provide care for you if you need it? Who will you be caring for? Where will you live? How will you get around your neighborhood?

A financial advisor should be able to engage with clients on the full span of topics related to preparing for longevity. Topics like where a client intends to live in retirement—or who they hope will provide care to them as they age—have crucial financial implications. More importantly, there is no expert or professional today who plays the role of motivating their clients to think about their future, older selves and what they will want in their later lives.

An advisor who helps a client begin to think about these questions—perhaps not answer them definitively, but simply provide a space and an occasion to talk about them—plays a unique and valuable role: not just a financial planner, but a longevity planner.

“Happiness” Should Be a Longevity Planning Topic

Here’s one key retirement-planning question that some people may never even think about: What will make us happy in later life? Such a basic question can get lost amid more practical, instrumental topics, financial preparedness chief among them. Or we might just take for granted that people know for themselves what makes them happy (they don’t). Finally, we may assume that such a question is too subjective to have a meaningful “planning” discussion about.

It could be that for every person, happiness takes on a different character. For you, it might be a busy bar at night, while for me, it might be the quiet woods in the morning. Maybe the specifics are different depending on your personality. But there are certain foundations of happiness that hold for just about everyone. And we happen to know, scientifically speaking, what makes people not only happy but also what keeps people healthy as they age.

Community Is the Key

An ambitious longitudinal study has been following a group of Harvard graduates from 1938 until the present, from age 19 into their 90s. Researchers found that the number-one predictor of health and happiness throughout the lifespan for these men—significantly, the cohort is all men, due to Harvard’s admissions policies at the time—was having close relationships. Relationship quality mattered more than the participants’ social class, their IQ, their cholesterol levels, or their genetics.

What all this means is that a key component of any retirement plan is for your clients to know what their community is going to be. Their happiness, and even their health, might depend on it. In the past, for most people (and still for many people today), some sort of religious organization formed the backbone of their community. But church membership, alongside group membership in general, has fallen precipitously in the last 50 years.

However, there are many kinds of communities aside from religious ones: bowling leagues, book clubs, birdwatching groups, or just a tight-knit group of friends. The concept that encompasses these kinds of associations is called the third place. Your first place is where you live, your second place is where you work, and your third place is where you go out and meet your people. Generally, if not necessarily, people who have healthy social lives have a healthy third place.

The Decline of Community in the U.S.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, Americans have become steadily worse at finding and maintaining their third places. Our lives instead are often dominated by long days at work, which terminate with a few hours spent in front of the TV (or, these days, a combination of TV and phone) before going to sleep. Robert Putnam, who wrote a seminal text exploring the decline in American community and civic engagement, theorized that there’s a direct relationship between our increasingly intimate relationship with screens and our social isolation—a hypothesis that has been deeply explored by psychologists like Sherry Turkle. Our devices produce a pale facsimile for us of interpersonal engagement without the benefits of the real thing, the social equivalent of junk food.

Retirement, as both a life stage and aspiration, has its own particular issues with community. When we discuss retirement, it is surprisingly rare that we discuss relationships. Exhibit A is the images that appear in countless retirement brochures and Google searches. What you will find, almost unfailingly, are images of couples sitting alone together on the beach, biking on a promenade, or hiking up a mountain. Often, nobody else is in the picture. The first thought that comes to my mind is: Where is everybody?

Where the Advisor Fits

Our social network represents a different kind of capital than money—social capital. This social capital is so important to our quality of life, especially in later life, that it’s essential that we think about it as we prepare for future phases of our lives.

Our community is often determined by other kinds of key decisions—including where we choose to live and whether we choose to stop working, topics that may be a natural fit for an advisor to bring up. Talking with clients about these decisions can lead to deeper conversations about maintaining their social capital in later life.

That’s one way to go about the topic of community: seeing it as a natural extension of other topics. Another way to think about it, a more radical way, is to take it as a primary topic.

Under this view, the most important question for finding happiness in retirement may be a surprising one. It’s not where your client will live, how they will stay independent, what they will do with their free time, or even whether they will have enough money to retire.

The most important question starts with “who.”

Your clients should ask themselves the following questions: Who will care for me? Who do I want to care for? Who are the people I want in my life? Who can I count on? Who matters to me the most? Who do I want to leave an impact on?

If you want to help your clients imagine what their lives will be like in retirement, ask them one simple question: Who will be there? 

Adam Felts is a research associate at the MIT AgeLab. He conducts research on the experiences of family caregivers and how people think about and plan for the future. He received his master of theological studies from Boston University in 2019.

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