How to live a longer and happier retirement

Secrets of a dream retirement
Secrets of a dream retirement

I'm retired and very thankful that I have enough income to live comfortably. I enjoy helping others who are less fortunate than I am and have often wondered: Will my volunteer activities increase my longevity? --G.N., Arizona

I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that you can count on some sort of guaranteed payoff from your good works -- a few extra years of life in return for helping out in a soup kitchen twice a week or whatever. But there is evidence that by helping others you might be able to extend your post-career life as well as enhance your enjoyment of retirement.

For example, a 2013 paper by researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School that reviewed numerous studies on the relationship between volunteering and health concluded that volunteers had a lower risk of mortality than non-volunteers, were less likely to feel depressed and had an increased sense of well-being.

More recently, a 2015 Merrill Lynch report titled "Giving In Retirement: America's Longevity Bonus," found that retirees who give back in some way --whether financially or by volunteering -- were much more likely to report they were happy and healthy and that they had a strong sense of purpose about their lives. They were also three times more likely to say that helping people in need brings them greater happiness than spending money on themselves.

One possible reason giving back makes us feel happier and healthier is that the warm glow we get from assisting others may trigger beneficial physiological responses such as lower blood pressure and reduced stress (although researchers have also found that the positive effects of philanthropic efforts can be blunted or even disappear if you over do it -- that is, if you spend so much time and energy helping others that it becomes a burden or more like a job).

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Of course, volunteering is just one of many ways you may be able to lead a more satisfying, more rewarding (and perhaps longer) life in retirement. At the risk of stating the obvious, staying healthy is key.

To the extent you exercise, eat right and keep fit, the better you'll feel both physically and mentally -- and the more you'll able to enjoy not just volunteering but other activities as well. And I mean activities, plural. When Atlanta financial planner Wes Moss surveyed 1.350 retirees for his book You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think: The 5 Money Secrets of the Happiest Retirees, he found that retirees who had three to four core interests that they pursued passionately tended to be happiest.

You'll also want to maintain a solid network of friends and relatives that helps you to stay socially connected and engaged. A Pew Research Center study titled "Growing Old In America: Expectations Vs. Reality" found not only that the vast majority of people 65 and older viewed spending more time with family as one of the top benefits of aging, but that a broad circle of friends also makes life more rewarding. Specifically, seniors who said they were very satisfied with the number of friends they had were almost three times as likely to report being very happy than those who felt they didn't have enough friends.

Speaking of social connections, I'd be remiss if I failed to note that research also shows that older people who had more frequent sex tended to report higher levels of happiness than those who were less sexually active. For what it's worth, this relationship between sexual intimacy and higher levels of retirement satisfaction seem to hold for married and non-married couples alike.

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Finally, to the extent that it reduces anxiety about whether you have sufficient resources to maintain your preferred lifestyle the rest of your life, getting a better handle on your finances may also help you better enjoy retirement. At the very least, you should gauge how long your savings might last given your current rate of spending, which you can do by revving up this retirement income calculator.

And while, volunteering or no, any single individual's lifespan is pretty much impossible to predict, you can nonetheless get a sense of how long you might live given such factors as your age, gender and state of health by checking out the Actuaries Longevity Illustrator tool.

If helping others through volunteering makes you feel good, by all means keep doing it. And while you're at it, make sure you're doing everything else you can to improve your chances of having a more rewarding post-career life. That way, even if you don't end up with any extra years of retirement, you'll enjoy yourself more during however much time you have left.