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“What the Happiest Retirees Know” by Wes Moss

What are the top secrets of the happiest retirees? Wes Moss (literally) wrote the book on it. And Joe Stenken read it so you don't have to.

A book review from Joe Stenken, J.D.

Wes Moss has written a fascinating book on happy retirees and what they do or have done to make their retirement happy. He calls these people the Happiest Retirees on the Block or HROB for short. He contrasts these HROB with UROB, the Unhappiest Retirees on the Block.

Joe Stenken

Joe Stenken

He starts out the book by telling the story of following his father, a large-animal veterinarian, on his visits to Amish clients. Wes spent a great deal of time on Amish farms and doing that allowed him to get to know the Amish world. The Amish had no electricity, no means of fast and convenient communication, and no cars. In addition to the Amish, his dad also had plenty of wealthy clients. But one thing he noticed was that even though the Amish did not have nearly the material wealth of the non-Amish, they seemed to be as happy or happier than the non-Amish people he knew.

This led to a question for Wes that gave him a passion and eventually a career: How exactly does money correlate to happiness? This led him on an over 10-year journey culminating in this book.

While discussing whether retirees are happy or not certainly involves monetary issues; more than half the book discusses aspects of retirement that do not (directly, anyway) involve a retiree’s finances. In this way, it is very much a holistic guide to help a person work toward a retirement that is happy and fulfilling.

Among the non-financial habits of the HROB is how close they live to their adult children. Generally, the closer the better (but not in the same house and not on their parents’ payroll!). Michael J. Fox is quoted as saying, “Family is not an important thing. It’s everything.” But it is also pointed out that, according to a CNN report, 52 percent of young adults are living with their parents. Moss also says that according to his own research, over 40 percent of families are giving their adult children some level of financial support. On the other hand, his research has found that retirees who live “near or close” to at least half their children are five times more likely to be happy.

So, what are you going to “do” in retirement? Moss has determined that the happiest retirees have 3.6 “core pursuits” in retirement. A “core pursuit” is like a hobby but with more activity involved. A hobby might involve occasionally reading about golf and playing a couple times a year. A core pursuit would be getting on the links at least a couple times a month and maybe joining a golf league. The top four core pursuits are travel, activities with family and grandchildren, playing golf or tennis, and volunteering. The unhappiest retirees have on average only 1.9 core pursuits. Moss recommends that even if you are not yet retired it’s a good idea to start thinking about the core pursuits you would like to engage in when retirement comes.

Moss talks about how marriage and divorce can affect whether or not a retiree is happy. He shows that there is a real correlation between marriage and happiness in retirement. For retirees who are not married, they are 4.5 times more likely to be unhappy. But retirees who are not married have a higher chance of being a happy retiree if they make sure they have support networks, stay active and are socially engaged with their family of choice. Moss’s research shows that someone who has been divorced and remarried one time does not have a lower chance of happiness. But those who have been divorced more than once have a lower chance of happiness in retirement.

Related to marriage and divorce is the issue of couples communicating about money. Of course, married couples need to talk about money. But, according to Moss, the happiest retirees discuss but do not obsess over money. The happiest retirees spend between one and two hours a month discussing money issues. Those couples who spend over 3.5 hours a month discussing money may find it counterproductive because at that level of discussion happiness levels begin to go down.

Did I say the book is a holistic look at retirement? There is research that Moss has done regarding the happiness of retirees and how often they go to church. Those who go to church at least once a week are 1.5 times more likely to be happy than other retirees. Related to going to church is the ability to maintain a network of contacts and friends. In addition, volunteering for what a retiree thinks are worthy causes also leads to a better chance at happiness and well-being in retirement.

Speaking of a network of friends, Moss’s research says that happy retirees have an average of 3.6 close connections (friends). On the other hand, unhappy retirees have an average of 2.6 close connections. Apparently, this difference in one friend can make a big difference. In fact, the number of friends a retiree has is more correlated to happiness than the amount of money they have. Related to this is that happy retirees report they belong to at least one group. It doesn’t matter what kind of group as long as the retiree participates in the group’s activities.

If you are not a healthy retiree you are likely not a happy retiree. So those retirees who take care of themselves in retirement and maintain a healthier lifestyle are generally happier than those who do not. Happy retirees are fans of what Moss calls the “ings.” These are low-cost forms of exercise such as walking, swimming, biking, and hiking. Moss points out that a retiree is three times as likely to be happy if she follows the Mediterranean diet. Vegetarians and those who prefer “meat and potatoes” do all right though. The key seems to be to take seriously what you eat and try to avoid fast food if possible. And thankfully, happy retirees do not need to give up alcohol. The happiest retirees report that white wine and gin are their favorite alcoholic drinks.

While many aspects of what makes a happy retirement do not involve financial issues (at least directly), Moss does discuss the financial aspects that can be the difference between a happy and an unhappy retirement. One of these is the retiree’s home and also the home mortgage. According to Moss, the happiest retirees are those who have paid off their mortgage or will have it paid off soon. And, it isn’t necessarily the house that leads to happiness but often the neighborhood or community the home is in. The home the retiree has lived in for a number of years creates a local network and community. And the happiest retirees don’t tend to downsize, because they anticipate their children and grandchildren will be coming to visit. As far as whether to pay off the mortgage in one lump sum, Moss uses what he calls the one-third rule. If a person is able to pay off the mortgage with no more than one-third of their non-retirement assets then it is a good idea to do so.

There are other financial aspects to a happy retirement. One of them is having at least $500,000 in liquid retirement savings. Moss points out that having retirement savings in excess of $500,000 does not have an impact on happiness that getting to $500,000 does. Another characteristic of happy retirees is having multiple streams of retirement income. These multiple streams of income can include Social Security, multiple pensions, rental real estate, or part-time work in retirement. In fact, about 20 percent of retirees continue to work part-time after deciding to retire from their full-time careers.

As mentioned at the beginning, this book is a fascinating study of retirement and provides a great deal of research and examples regarding how retirees can help ensure they will be happy retirees.

About Joe Stenken, J.D., CLU®, ChFC®

Joseph Stenken, J.D., CLU®, ChFC®, is Qualified Plan Counsel at McHenry Advisers, which provides retirement actuarial, insurance, and plan administration services for qualified retirement plans. He is a regular contributor to Retirement Daily.