The poet Mary Oliver never worked an interesting job in her life, just as she wanted it. Her fear was that it would take away valuable time and energy from her true passion — writing poetry.
As she explained in an interview:
I was very careful never to take an interesting job. I took lots of jobs. But if you have an interesting job you get interested in it. … Believe me, if anybody has a job and starts at 9, there’s no reason why they can’t get up at 4:30 or 5 and write for a couple of hours, and give their employers their second-best effort of the day – which is what I did.
I am not a full proponent of her idea. If you spend eight or more hours a day at a job, it helps to have at least some interest in what you do.
Still, Oliver makes a good point: There is no reason not to allocate more effort to the things that give us joy and less to the things that don’t.
It may sound trite. But honestly think about it: How well do you do this?
In the financial industry, we mostly sell people on the idea of an ideal future that affords them total control over their time to do whatever they want. In other words, retirement. But why focus entirely on the future when we can live to some degree like that now?
Essentially, if you want to lead a more fulfilling life, then do the things retirees are told to do to make the most of their later years. As Oliver encourages: Give yourself permission to put forth your best effort toward the things that provide happiness and meaning while skating through the less important stuff in life.
It is something I certainly need to get better at, which is why I have begun to reframe life as if I were retired. That is, putting more intention behind the things I do, with less consideration of what other people and society thinks.
Here are the steps I am taking to try to live like I’m retired.
Do the one thing known to make everyone happier: Help others.
One of the top activities workers say they want to do when they retire is volunteer. For good reason. By helping others, you help yourself.
Of the 239 older adult volunteers surveyed by the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, 79% said they feel better about themselves by volunteering; 95% said they have improved their lives; and 96% said they have been involved in meaningful activities.
Why wait until you’re retired to volunteer? There is no age requirement for generosity. As many people turn inward with materialistic and technological outlets for a sense of satisfaction, the real trick is to not think about yourself at all.
Here’s how I’m doing that: I found that one hard part of helping others is not knowing exactly how. What do I do? Where do I go? These are a couple of the questions I had. So, I started to just ask people I know if they needed help or knew someone who did. Eventually, I was introduced to a homeless center through my church and learned people can volunteer in many more ways than being on-site somewhere. For example, I’ve shopped for supplies and picked up donations, even as I go about my daily routine. Every little bit is needed and helpful.
Because of the higher risk of cognitive decline, mental health becomes more important as we age. Hence, the many brain games and other activities geared toward older adults. But you’re better off the earlier you start making mental acuity a priority, and the best preventive step is to learn new skills.
Many psychological studies suggest the challenge of learning a new skill can enhance memory, strengthen the connections between parts of the brain and lower the risk of dementia. Learning a new language, for example, can help improve thinking skills and memory abilities regardless of what age you start. So why wait until you’re retired?
Here’s how I’m doing that: Hallo. Ich fing an, ungefähr 10 Minuten am Tag Deutsch zu üben. Es wird eine Weile dauern, bis ich es gemeistert habe, aber ich genieße es und habe Verbesserungen in meinem Gedächtnis bemerkt. Ich habe es jedoch gemeistert, deutsches Essen zu essen. Schnitzel, jemand?
Hi. I started practicing German for about 10 minutes a day. It will take a while to master, but I enjoy it and have noticed improvements in my memory. I have though mastered eating German food. Schnitzel, anyone?
If your job isn’t your passion, make your hobbies your identity.
Work provides many perks, including a place to socialize, a sense of purpose and, of course, money and benefits. But for many people, like Oliver, their job is not their identity. Therefore, hobbies should be treated more seriously in society, not just as a way to pass the time.
That is why retirement is often thought of as an opportunity to do all those interesting things we wish we had more time to do while working.
The benefits of hobbies go far beyond simple enjoyment. Hobbies are associated with a variety of physical and psychological benefits, such as lower blood pressure, better fitness and reduced stress. One study even suggests the outdoor exposure and physicality of gardening increases longevity.
Here’s how I’m doing that: I know I will never play guitar for 10,000 screaming fans in Madison Square Garden. But I still write my own songs, and I am working on being comfortable telling people that “I make music.” It isn’t good, but it is true. As the artist and writer Austin Kleon said: “When you find things you genuinely enjoy, don’t let anyone else make you feel bad about it. Don’t feel guilty about the pleasure you take in the things you enjoy. Celebrate them.”
Move around — a lot.
We all know exercise is important. Physical activity makes us physically and mentally healthier. Without the time constraints of a job, retirees often make exercising more of a priority, as it helps improve mobility and ward off health issues.
We could probably all move more each day. And that doesn’t mean two-hour gym sessions. The simple act of walking increases the supply of blood and oxygen to your muscles and organs, which helps you think and come up with new ideas. It explains why many famous writers were known as avid walkers.
Here’s how I’m doing that: Inspired by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, I run almost every day in the early morning hours – before anyone else is awake. It keeps unexpected demands from getting in the way and makes me more energized for the day ahead. It’s all about making physical activity a habit. I never feel bad after a run, only when I don’t run.
Experience new places.
A common aesthetic of retirement marketing is of older adults traveling abroad — walking a cobblestone street, prancing on a white sandy beach, gazing over the railing of an ocean liner. Who doesn’t want to travel more?
Traveling somewhere new has been shown to boost emotional IQ, empathy and creativity in travelers. It doesn’t require a passport
There are new places all around us to explore. Visit a different part of your city. Eat at a new restaurant. Hike a new trail.
Here’s how I’m doing that: My family adopted this rule: When deciding what to do on the weekend, always choose that which we’ve never done before. We have explored so much more of our hometown of Detroit and its surroundings. This simple trick has led us to so many new and remarkable places (did you know the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is the first traffic tunnel between two nations?), things (did you know kids like gravy on their fries?!) and people (did you know Canadians really are that nice?) nearby.
Schedule consistent time with friends and relatives.
The majority of workers said they plan to spend more time with friends and family during their retirement years, according to an HSBC survey. Of course, distance along with work, kids, etc., are valid reasons why we don’t spend as much time with loved ones as as we want.
But when you consider how essential socializing is in life, there is an incentive to find creative solutions for spending more time with friends and relatives.
Now that nearly all my friends have started families, we have adapted. Our time together is shorter but at greater frequency. Instead of a long night out, it is a half-hour coffee break, a Sunday softball league, a quick run through a park.
Here’s how I’m doing that: I don’t believe technology can ever replace the experience of in-person contact. But when time to meet is hard to come by, it works wonders. My friends and I are advocates of a weekly virtual happy hour. In the chaotic mix of work, family and chores, a beer with friends from all over the country helps keep me connected – and sane.
Accept life’s hardships.
Nothing can insulate you from tragedy. It is a fact of life. The sooner you can accept it, the easier it is. It’s why older adults, having years of both good and bad experiences, tend to be happier.
As journalist John Leland writes in his book, Happiness Is a Choice You Make:
“Older people are more content, less anxious or fearful, less afraid of death, more likely to see the good side of things and accept the bad, than young adults.”
The happiness curve suggests that life hits its low point around age 50. Perhaps by aligning our mindsets to those in the later innings of life we can avoid that dip.
If you can go through the hard times with grace, then you can live a full life no matter how much time your money can buy.
Jacob Schroeder is a financial writer covering topics related to personal finance and retirement. Over the course of a decade in the financial services industry, he has written materials to educate people on saving, investing and life in retirement.
With the love of telling a good story, his work has appeared in publications including Yahoo Finance, Wealth Management magazine, The Detroit News and, as a short-story writer, various literary journals. He is also the creator of the finance newsletter The Root of All (https://rootofall.substack.com/), exploring how money shapes the world around us. Drawing from research and personal experiences, he relates lessons that readers can apply to make more informed financial decisions and live happier lives.
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