Want to Retire Happily? Plan for Leisure and Purpose

Strive for relaxation, connection and purpose to retire happily.

A fit, senior woman looks over her shoulder as she rows a boat.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

How can you retire happily? There are benefits from maximizing leisure time, but also in finding a strong sense of purpose in retirement.

How to retire happily, according to a billionaire

How do you become a millionaire? Become a billionaire first. 

That was a favorite joke of Charles “Chuck” Feeney, who passed away in 2023 at 92. Feeney, the pioneer of duty-free shops, lived a lavish lifestyle with yachts and luxury properties before choosing to give away nearly his entire $8 billion fortune starting in the early 1980s.

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“I just reached the conclusion with myself that money, buying boats and all the trimmings didn’t appeal to me,” Feeney said. By 2017, he resided in a modest rented San Francisco apartment, retaining a $2 million nest egg. Reflecting on his life of philanthropy, he said, “I cannot think of a more personally rewarding and appropriate use of wealth than to give while one is living, to personally devote oneself to meaningful efforts to improve the human condition.”

While it’s safe to say most of us won’t have to figure out the best use of a billion-dollar fortune, Freeney’s journey from an extravagant to a purpose-driven life raises a pertinent question for anyone who achieves retirement: What kind of life should one lead after years of building wealth?

A 2018 MIT AgeLab study surveyed 990 U.S. adults and found diverse descriptions of post-career life, ranging from positive (“fun”) to negative (“boring”). Of the 4,759 answers given, some respondents described actions (“travel”, “hobbies”) and others achievements (“success”, “fulfilled”). These responses suggest retirement is viewed differently, but there were many common words provided that could be categorized through the lenses of leisure or purpose.

So, is one is more preferable to the other? Is retirement better as a leisurely phase or one marked by meaningful contributions, akin to Freeney’s choice? 

The answer, upon closer examination, is clear.

The case for a leisurely retirement 

In the MIT study, “relax” and “happy” topped the list of words associated with retirement, reflecting the desire to enjoy time, our most valuable asset. 

For retirees, eight-hour workdays have been replaced by over seven daily hours of leisure, according to the 2022 American Time Use Survey. They’re spending time engaging in hobbies, socializing and, the most popular leisure activity, watching TV.

It’s understandable. After decades of work and life’s challenges, a well-deserved break and the joy found in leisure are appealing. But it provides more than just relaxation. While frowned upon by America’s hyper-productivity-focused culture, leisure is linked to better health, creativity and marital satisfaction. (Take note retired couples!)

But perhaps there's more to happiness than leisure alone. Maybe a deeper sense of fulfillment is found in the community rather than watching re-runs of “Community”?

The case for a purposeful retirement

Purpose may be the secret to a longer, happier life.

A significant 2010 meta-analysis, combining 148 studies with over 308,000 participants, found that purpose and social connection boost survival rates by 50%. The absence of social relationships poses risks comparable to smoking, drinking, and obesity.

This concept is further supported by research from the Blue Zones organization, which studies long-lived populations globally. Some of their research was popularized by a National Geographic and Netflix docuseries called “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zone.” It links longevity with purpose, particularly in Okinawa, Japan, where residents have a word for it: “ikigai,” meaning “reason for being.” 

This cultural emphasis on purpose aligns with findings from the Nationwide Retirement Institute survey, as reported by SeniorLiving.org. This research shows that “97% of retirees with a strong sense of purpose reported happiness, compared to 76% without.”

Given these insights, many retirees find purpose more important than wealth, suggesting that a purpose-driven retirement may be more fulfilling than one focused solely on leisure.

The verdict

A fulfilling retirement consists of both leisure and purpose, which may actually be two sides of the same coin. People find purpose in various ways, according to a An Age Wave/Edward Jones study reveals that people find purpose in various ways. Surprisingly, the most impactful was not volunteering, faith, new hobbies or family. Nor was it friends. Well, sort of. The top source was “adopting a pet.” Caring for a furry friend can give life meaning.

This diversity in sources of purpose cited suggests that it is highly personal. Purpose is essential, but you get to define what that is. Whether it’s striving for a perfect golf score, traveling the world, enjoying coffee with a friend, or tutoring someone, both leisure activities and caring for others can enrich your life. One is not necessarily more valuable than the other; they coexist harmoniously in a happy retirement.

The key is defining your purpose, something that drives you daily and brings joy, which may vary over time. Reflecting on what you value, as Charles Feeney did, can help you discover your ideal retirement life. As the MIT study showed, you can define retirement how you wish, resembling an art form of which leisure and purpose are different shades of color, but both integral, complementary elements. 

After the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance became a hit, author Robert Pirsig was asked why anyone would connect art with motorcycle mechanics. He said, “[A]rt is anything you can do well, anything you can do with quality, anything where there are options for doing it well or poorly… So you can make an art out of just about anything.”

Sounds a lot like retirement.

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Jacob Schroeder

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.