“The coming wave of improved health and safety products promise a longer, more independent old age. Unfortunately, it won’t arrive with instructions; we’ll still have to figure out what to do during those extra years.”
– Dr. Joe Coughlin, Director of the MIT AgeLab
The AgeLab was established at MIT in 1999 as a multidisciplinary research program that works with businesses to improve the quality of life of older people and those who care for them. The AgeLab applies consumer-centered thinking to understand the challenges and opportunities of longevity and emerging generational lifestyles to encourage innovation across business markets. Their insights are critical for anyone who is nearing retirement, or who has loved ones such as parents, aunts, or uncles who are entering this stage of life. This article in our series discusses the pursuit of happiness after retirement.
Our Fundamental Rights
Most of us learned at some point in elementary school that the Declaration of Independence promises us, as Americans, three fundamental rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
When we reach the “Exploring” phase, much of our cultural narrative revolves around “life.” We typically focus on the need for healthcare and the challenge of preserving life in the face of old age. In fact, most of the products, services, and innovations designed for older Americans have something to do with healthcare.
In recent years, we have also made great strides in helping older Americans achieve “liberty,” largely thanks to technological innovations. Consider the impact of access to an Uber ride for an older person who may not be able to drive, or the ability to remain living at home despite chronic health conditions, thanks to medical-monitoring technologies.
But the question that remains for baby boomers today is how to approach our third unalienable right, “happiness.”
Is This All There Is?
The traditional narrative about aging specifies that older adults have only a few socially sanctioned activities, which include leisure, consumerism, volunteerism, and spending time with family. In our experience, when we ask clients what they hope to achieve in retirement, many of them discuss relaxation and rest, and not much else. In fact, the MIT AgeLab did a study of the language that people most commonly use to describe “life after career,” and the word that was used most often was “relax.”
Unlike the first 65 years of life, when most people have a pretty clear idea of what will inspire them and what they will aspire to, when we reach age 65, we’re not sure what will motivate or fulfill us. This new period of extended healthy years is totally lacking the kinds of cultural “mile markers” that tell younger people how to navigate their lives. Up until this time, there is always “the next thing” to look forward to: a graduation, a wedding, a new baby, a new job, or a career advancement, etc. Then suddenly, these signposts are gone, and we are on our own.
What Are You Retiring To?
For many people, once the kids are grown up, married off, and having grand-kids, work may be the primary source of inspiration, aspiration, and purpose. However, after the retirement party is over, the boxes from the office are unpacked, and we take a long, relaxing vacation, what do we do next? How do we achieve true happiness?
Some people choose to continue working in a part-time capacity. But, for those who don’t have this option, or otherwise choose to retire, it is worth considering in advance how you will fill the void left by the absence of work. Some options include: volunteerism or charity work, a new hobby, travel, etc. Unfortunately, our common culture doesn’t provide us with a blueprint with mile markers. The good news is that we get to custom design our own happiness. What will make you happy?