Why do some retirees cope with life so much better than others? Part of the answer is fairly obvious: things like getting lots of exercise, keeping busy, and creating strong friendships and family bonds.
But something else also seems to be at work. Since I can't quite describe it, I simply call it "love of life." Over and above -- and sometimes even instead of -- good living habits, it really does seem to set zestful older people apart from so many other retirees who have lost their joie de vivre.
I put the question to some successful retirees: Why do some older people have the knack of living life fully, even though, by conventional measures, they have plenty of reason to feel depressed, bored, or lonely? Here are some of the thoughtful answers I received.
Throughout our lives, most of us strive to fit in. Whether we are in fifth grade, high school or at work, we want to be accepted by the people around us. Somewhat surprisingly, many of the most successful retirees I interviewed claimed to have often failed miserably at this and cheerfully described themselves as "odd," "wacky," or "a little nuts."
One friend, Afton Crooks, explained it like this: "I am the first to admit that I have always been a little odd. You can't help but observe how you fit -- or, in my case, often don't fit -- into the world. I gained a sense of humility, or reduced expectations, about life that many conventionally popular people never achieve. Thus I was better adapted to being old in America, a country where everyone over 60 is fundamentally considered to be weird."
Many happy retirees believe that they have lived harder lives than many of their contemporaries. Like my friend Gretchen, who calls herself a "tough old bird," they believe that coping with tough problems earlier in life makes them better equipped to cope with old age.
A common attitude seems to be, "Yes, getting old is rough. But so what? I learned years ago that life can be hard and that each day I have a choice -- I can give up or I can overcome my obstacles as best I can and get on with living."
Why do many women do better than men after retirement? One reason my women friends repeatedly emphasize is that they have no trouble keeping busy outside of the workplace. After retirement, homemaking responsibilities such as cooking, shopping, or cleaning out a closet, coupled with time spent helping children and grandchildren, not only give many women a reason to get up in the morning but also a way to express love and caring.
By contrast, many retired men have way too little to do. A few learn how to participate in what they grew up considering "women's work," learning finally that it can be a joy to provide basic needs, such as good food, a clean welcoming home, or care for a small child; too many don't. And the unfortunate consequences of being free of day-to-day chores seem to be depression and illness.
Although I knew that many studies have found that people who live with animals tend to be healthier and happier than those who don't, I was nevertheless surprised when I realized how many active, interested older people -- especially those who live alone -- have close relationships with animals.
Dogs figure prominently in the lives of many fulfilled oldsters. Not only is a dog a friend and companion, but it also helps the older person in several other important ways, including getting exercise, making friends, and feeling needed. For example, when I called one 80-year-old to talk, she put me off until later -- she had a date to go dog-walking with a 38-year-old friend she had met when their dogs had run off together to chase a deer.
For a guide that helps you prepare for retirement -- not just financially, but in every aspect of your life -- see Retire Happy: What You Can Do Now to Guarantee a Great Retirement, by Richard Stim and Ralph Warner (Nolo).