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Save for tomorrow, be happy today

Another reason to plan hard for retirement: It might cheer you up right now.

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By Walter Updegrave, Money Magazine senior editor

(Money Magazine) -- In a sense, retirement planning is all about deferred gratification. You live below your means while you work so you can save for a time when you can live however you want. In short, you give up something today so you can live better tomorrow.

But what if preparing for retirement had a more immediate payoff? Wouldn't it be neat if you could enjoy the fruits of your effort now?

Well, maybe you already do. That, at least, is the implication of a recent survey by insurer Northwestern Mutual and health education company LLuminari. The study didn't address retirement per se.

But as the charts to the right show, people who do the sorts of things that constitute good planning tend to feel happier than those who don't. It appears that the very act of preparing for retirement may deliver a reward now as well as later.

No one is suggesting that getting ready for your post-career days guarantees lifelong bliss or that there's a formula for achieving nirvana. (Save an extra $100 a month and be 50% more fulfilled!)

But the notion that taking steps toward a secure retirement can make you more content is hardly a stretch. Economists, psychologists and others who study happiness find that people who have a sense of control over their lives cope better with stress and live more happily, while those who feel powerless are more likely to be depressed.

Or as the playwright George Bernard Shaw put it: "To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer."

So what can you do to make yourself feel better about feathering your nest? Apply these three happiness-linked actions to your retirement planning:

Set goals

If you fail to set goals early on, you'll be drifting instead of steering. So think about the percentage of pre-retirement income you'll want to replace once you retire - say, 80% to 90%. Then use a calculator like our Retirement Planner to see how much you must save each year to have a shot at reaching that goal. Keep refining your savings target as you near retirement.

Take steps to achieve your goals

If the amount you're putting into your 401(k) falls short of your savings target, boost your contribution. If maxing out your 401(k) still leaves a gap, you can funnel additional savings into an IRA or tax-efficient options like index funds or tax-managed funds.

Control debt

It's unrealistic to avoid borrowing altogether. But you can prevent debt from undermining your retirement security by not carrying a credit-card balance. Not only will you avoid onerous interest charges, but the Northwestern study shows that people who are most committed to paying off their cards are almost 20% more likely to describe themselves as cheerful.

So the next time you're trying to decide between a higher 401(k) contribution and a big-screen TV, you might want to go with the option that may make you feel good now and in the years ahead.

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