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3 Keys to a Happy Retirement

Tom Sightings

Some people have a vision of what their new life will be like in retirement. Other people see retirement as a blank canvas, with nothing but empty years trailing off into the future. But no matter how you view retirement, these three keys unlock the door to a happy retirement.

1. Allow for a period of transition. If you have always known what you want to do when you retire and have nurtured the dream for years, then you likely have already completed your transition period. You have a plan and can jump right into your new life.

But most of us are not so definite. The years ahead beckon us, but we can't see how they'll play out. So take the time to do some research, then make a plan. If you can, begin to plan for retirement while you're still working. Use weekends and vacation time to try out a new lifestyle, whether it's vacationing in the location where you want to retire or doing research for the business you want to start.

Some people can transition from work to retirement by working part time for a few years. But most of us don't have that option. Perhaps retirement comes as a sudden jolt, because we've been laid off or too busy working and raising our family to plan ahead. If that's your situation, consider taking a year or two to figure out what you want to do. You could move to a retirement community, get another job or travel abroad. Retirement is a whole new stage of life, so you need to prepare emotionally, financially and from a practical point of view as well. So take some time, do the research and look before you leap.

2. Do something useful. Many retirees joke that they have nothing to do, so how come they're so busy? They do errands, poke around the house and putter around the yard. The years slip by, and they have nothing to show for them. But just because you're retired doesn't mean you can't have a purpose in life, especially if you retire when you're relatively young and healthy.

Several people I know help raise their grandchildren, getting to know the children while making it possible for the parents to continue their careers. It's hard to think of a project more useful than that.

Another option is to get a part-time job. Maybe you need the money, someplace to go in the morning or to make new friends. The key is to take a job that's fun and rewarding. If you're a golfer, maybe you could work part time at a golf course. If you like fashion, you could work at a clothing store at the mall. One friend of mine works four mornings a week as a cashier at the supermarket. He loves meeting people, and now he knows practically everybody in town. Plus, his workday is over by 11 a.m., giving him plenty of time for other interests.

Some people find a sense of belonging and self-worth in a volunteer job. I have one friend who ushers at a theater that books live music and runs classic movies. He sees a lot of shows for free and has met a few of the live acts. I found my own volunteer job, tutoring at a community college, through VolunteerMatch.org.

3. Share your life. One predictable pitfall of retirement is loneliness, as old friends die or move away. It's hard to make new friends when you're no longer connected to the community through your work or children. So make a point of hanging on to your old friends and developing new ones when you can. Join a club or develop an interest. Say "yes" the next time someone invites you over, or reach out and invite someone else over to your house.

If you live alone, think about sharing your home with another person. Shared housing is a new trend, not just among 20-something city dwellers, but among baby boomers as well. You can find organizations to help you identify various options at the National Shared Housing Resource Center. If you insist on privacy, consider moving into a condominium complex or age-appropriate community where residents socialize through a book club or bridge club, or by exercising in the swimming pool.

Don't get stuck in your old life. Your career is over, your kids are grown and it's time to move on. But don't panic. Take the time to formulate a plan, then make the leap into a new, meaningful and fulfilling life.

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.

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