Even in retirement, people have trouble spending time how they want to

The lucky ones.
The lucky ones.
Image: REUTERS/Eduard Korniyenko
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Retirement wellbeing has been widely studied, in ways that tend to center around the impact of people’s finances. But how retirees spend their time is shaping up to be at least as interesting a story as how they spend their savings.

A new study led by Tao Guo, an assistant finance professor at William Paterson University, finds that how people allocate their time in retirement is a factor in their wellbeing. And the reality is that most retirees are spending way less time on what they desire as they get older, contributing to a decrease in overall happiness.

The study used data obtained from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a longitudinal survey administered by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, which contains detailed information on retirees and self-reported happiness derived from daily activities, as well as the amount of time allocated to each activity.

Passive activities such as watching television and staying at home were reported to generate the lowest amount of happiness, while more active endeavors, like socializing, volunteering, walking or exercising, were associated with the highest level of happiness, among retirees of all ages. Yet the study found that as respondents aged, they spent more time watching television, staying home, and running errands.

On the one hand, this makes sense in that, as the researchers suggest, more active endeavors may also demand more self-motivation, better health, or financial resources. (Also, while gardening or playing golf might sound like a great idea in the abstract, doing it every day for months or years on end might be a different story.)

On the other hand, at least the desire to engage in active pursuits was found to have increased with age, while the desire for passive activities decreased with age. (A possible explanation for this, the researchers suggest, is that people might start off in their retirement spending more time at home or watching more television, making up for what they missed during their working years. But eventually they find that engaging in more social activities provides more happiness.)

The desire for more meaningful activities may also help explain why, as the workforce continues to age, the share of Americans working in their 70s has also increased.

Meanwhile, the study found that engaging in activities that could lead to social isolation was consistently associated with poor health and low well-being in older individuals, as well as increased risk of premature death and poorer cognitive functioning.

The study suggest that retirees of any age can benefit from being given simple resources, like a list of volunteer opportunities, tools that help them track their time use and health, and life-planning and retirement coaching. And the researchers, whose work was published in the Journal of Financial Planning, suggest that financial planners should be thinking about these things and about their clients’ mental states in retirement, and not just focusing on how people manage their savings.