A Case For Aging Happily


Whether it’s reading neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta’s Keep Sharp, or listening to Dr. Peter Attia (author of Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity) on Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard, a favorite podcast of mine, or simply contemplating the many conversations I have with the older people and clients in my life on a daily basis, I have been devouring everything I can on this complex and interesting topic.

Older woman with hands interlaced sitting their lap

And while Gupta and Attia share some of the cold hard facts that are pretty well understood by now (exercise matters, nutrition matters, genetic makeup matters), they also take a deeper, more nuanced dive to reveal the complexity of not just living a long time, but being alive a long time. Alive, according to Merriam Webster: “marked by alertness, energy, or briskness” or “marked by much life, animation, or activity.” Lively, vigorous. Full of life—not just living. That is the part I have been finding myself obsessed with. Most scientists and doctors agree on the main building blocks, while their methods might differ slightly. And most professionals like us, who manage people’s money for them, also agree on the specifically retirement-focused building blocks, or what we like to see for good financial health as people head into retirement or move further down that road. But there is much less consensus or even focus on the softer side of the whole equation. It’s really not soft at all, as it asks questions about how to be more alive in old age, how to feel fulfilled, and how to combat loneliness. I’ll take the liberty of assuming most individuals in our society agree—no one’s goal is to simply live as long as possible; it’s to enjoy being alive as long as possible.

In our profession, we obsess over the financial inputs because they are an important part of the aging puzzle, from our standpoint, and a part we can attempt to have some control over on behalf of our clients.

We attempt to safeguard your financial future by comprehensively factoring in everything from market fluctuations to tax burdens to unexpected expenses like long-term care or the impact of excessive withdrawals from your portfolio year after year. Our goal of course is to help you not outlive your money—and the underlying driver for that goal is that we want to help you enjoy the lifestyle you tell us you’re accustomed to living. But interestingly, it is often our very best clients who struggle with that “enjoy” part the most. They’re great clients because they’ve spent their adult lives thus far saving and accumulating and sacrificing in order to prepare for retirement, and it’s a very tough transition for those types of individuals to begin the draw-down phase of their life where money is finite and withdrawals take the place of contributions. We often find we are giving those people permission to spend the money they’ve spent a lifetime earning​ because they really struggle to grant that permission to themselves.

Our financial planning process is extremely helpful in this way; it is. However, it falls short, like so many of the traditional guides to longevity tend to do. It offers us a plan for the future, but it neglects to address any part of what it means to be psychologically or emotionally prepared for retirement.

And for what is so often an extremely long chapter in people’s lives, it strikes me as incredibly odd that there is so little guidance surrounding such preparedness. Just Google the word “retirement,” and consider the images that pop up. It’s lot of photos of couples—a grinning husband and wife on a bench together mesmerized by the sunset over a lake, another couple holding hands as they walk through the ocean surf. I mean… is that the best we got? That’s retirement in a nutshell? The last quarter of our life on this planet? It falls a little flat for me, and I can tell you from experience that it falls a little flat for most people who are navigating that time period in real time… and for very good reason. 

Discussions about and depictions of retirement fail to touch on the very sobering reality that it’s a new phase of life that lacks nearly all of the norms, institutions, and rituals that structured the phases experienced throughout our course of life up until that point, according to MIT Age Lab.

That means that even the most basic, fundamental questions are unclear to us—and picturing myself sitting with my husband staring out over various bodies of water on benches day in and day out is really not helping me gain clarity about happiness and fulfillment as I age. And “retirement,” by the way? It has the same connotation or ring to it as “graduation” or “commencement.” Except it lasts for somewhere along the lines of 20-40 years.

Harvard tackled a pretty rigorous longitudinal study of its graduates from 1938 until just a few years ago, in which participants aged from 19 until well into their nineties.

Researchers studied what sort of correlation or causations existed to predict health, quality of life, and ultimately, happiness for the participants throughout their long lives. And they found that the number one predictor, more than social class or money, intelligence, cholesterol or genetics, was having close personal relationships with others. What an extraordinary revelation that is both surprising and not—happiness, which we’ve always been taught to believe is such an individualized, personalized thing—is fairly consistent among many of us. What it means, then, is that a critical component for our longevity preparedness journey should be considering who and what our community is going to be, a concept I’ll introduce as our “third place.”

Your first place is where you live (your home), your second place is where you work, and your third place is where you go and be with your people.

In retirement, your second place is virtually pulled out from underneath you. But a lot of folks do not have solid footing in a third place, either. These kinds of third place communities are things like book clubs, coffee clubs, bowling leagues, churches, etc.

I was a political science major at University of Rochester, and in one of my classes we read the book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, and it was both fascinating and alarming. Putnam explores the fact that since the middle of the twentieth century, Americans have gotten pretty steadily less interested in maintaining or participating in their third places. We’ve gotten increasingly disconnected with community and civic engagement and instead have become more and more isolated. Americans, at the time of the book, were actually bowling more than ever, but just not in an organized way; league membership had steadily declined. We were (are) quite literally bowling alone. And what is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of all is that this book was published in the year 2000—Facebook, the best proxy for social media as we came to know it, was not released to the general public until 2006. The disturbing trend that Putnam identified was happening even before our worlds were turned inside out and upside down by the advent of social media (the irony of course being that there is virtually nothing social about social media). 

We spend our working years in most cases with a built-in community of colleagues, coworkers, and socialization to some extent, and then head into retirement where those built-in communities largely disappear.

And yet when we discuss retirement, it is very rare that you hear discussion of relationships or even pictures of relationships that extend beyond spouses (consider again the Google image results). And yet those other relationships and communities are so critical in giving our lives purpose, meaning, fulfillment, and ultimately, happiness. Loneliness, once considered a byproduct of aging, has now emerged as a leading cause of death in modern society. Why? Because emotional loneliness is associated with an increased risk of all causes of mortality in older adults. So maybe the number one cause of death isn’t heart disease or cancer—perhaps we can trace it back to loneliness. The profound impact of loneliness on physical and mental health cannot be overstated, with men often at greater risk due to a tendency to not only be statistically less likely to have a “best friend” than women, but that the depth associated with such best friendship is shallower than that of women. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, 4 out of 10 Americans say they don’t have a best friend at all, up from 25% in 1990. And yet the percentage of men who report not having any close friends shot up to 15% in 2021 from 3% in 1990, according to the American Perspectives Survey.

In preparing for longevity, or in simply thinking about your retirement years that will take you into old age, we urge you to ask yourself not just what, and when, and where, but who? Who will be with you as you age? Who will you spend time with, care about, and care for, and who will do the same with you?

Your physical health, and therefore life, will likely depend on it. While there’s always something that can be done to improve your financial plan (much of which we’ve probably been on your case about before if you’ve gone through the financial planning process with us) or something to worry about in the stock market, we urge you to spend some time thinking about this potentially greater vulnerability in your longevity plan. It’s a tougher thing to be able to check off the list once complete, unlike increasing your retirement savings or implementing Roth conversions or taking care of your Estate Planning documents, but its importance is paramount.  

Sarah Swan

As a Wealth Manager and CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, Sarah focuses her time on working with clients and is passionate about helping them achieve their financial goals


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