So it turns out I’ve been using the wrong word. I’ve written about the connection between happiness and good health, how to increase your happiness by practicing gratitude, and how spending money on experiences makes us happier than spending money on stuff. I didn’t mean to use the word happy. What I was really referring to was eudaimonic well-being. You probably thought I meant hedonic well-being. I know, I know, why didn’t I just say so?
Hedonic well-being is the fleeting type of happiness you feel when you get upgraded to first class or the Giant’s win the World Series. It’s the euphoria you experience driving home after your last day of work en route to the first day of the rest or your life: retirement. That’s not the happiness to which I refer when I speak of happiness. In fact, the constant pursuit of hedonic well-being is part of the reason that people aren’t happier, and by happy I mean eudaimonic, I mean if that really is a word.
According to the Wall Street Journal (thanks for that link Ram), “ ‘Eudaimonia’ is a Greek word associated with Aristotle and often mistranslated as ‘happiness’—which has contributed to misunderstandings about what happiness is.” So it’s not just me. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin say the key to achieving eudaimonic happiness, the kind that is important to physical health, is to have a sense of purpose to your life.
Any happy retiree doesn’t need Aristotle to tell them that. According to the studies:
“Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.”
And by feelings of happiness, they mean hedonic well-being.
Retirement won’t make you happy. Retirement isn’t a purpose, it’s a goal. Once you achieve it, you’ve got to find your new purpose. Feeling a sense of purpose may have been easy when you were raising kids or running a business, but in retirement, you’ve got to find that new thing that rings your bell. If you’re going to be retired for decades, chances are, that’s not just one thing but a series of things.
With most of us yearning for that day when we can finally escape the rat race, it can come as a shock that after the honeymoon phase, the hedonic happiness fades, the novelty wears off, and now the work begins, figuring out what will make you happy. And by happy I mean eudaimonic.
Totally Unrelated Post:
Why Pessimism is Good for Your Retirement (My latest post over at U.S. News & World Report)
This is a post from Retirement: A Full-Time Job