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This gap in retirement planning is ‘hidden in plain sight,’ says Harvard professor – NBC Los Angeles

  • Planning for retirement often focuses on your finances: for example, when to rely on Social Security and how much to save in a 401(k) plan.
  • Investing in strong social bonds, whether with a partner, friends, family or others, is perhaps just as important.
  • The Harvard Study of Adult Development shows that having meaningful relationships is the strongest predictor of a long, happy, and healthy life.
  • It’s never too late to improve yours.

For many people, retirement planning is all about money: how to invest, how much to save, when to claim Social Security, how best to withdraw money from accounts.

Post-retirement finances are an acute fear. About two in three people are more concerned about running out of money than about death, according to a recent poll by Allianz Life.

Yet, according to experts, a remarkable lack of attention and care is paid to the social aspect of retirement.

It’s a facet of retirement planning that’s almost “hidden in plain sight,” says Robert Waldinger, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Waldinger is the fourth director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which began in 1938. The study, the longest running of its kind, has followed thousands of Americans over their lifetimes and across generations for the past 86 years.

A core finding, and perhaps surprising: having good relationships – whether with partners, friends, family or others – is the ‘strongest predictor’ of a long, healthy and happy life into old age, even more so than health factors such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, Waldinger said.

Money is the “obvious” focus when it comes to retirement planning, Waldinger said.

“(But) if you want to be happy, it’s usually not about the money,” he added.

Put another way: “Social connections are really good for us” and “loneliness kills,” Waldinger said in a 2015 TED Talk titled “What Makes a Good Life?” It is one of the most viewed TED Talks.

How stress affects our health

Relationships play a major role in preventing and relieving stress.

When someone is stressed, their body goes into a fight-or-flight mode, causing responses such as an increased heart rate, Waldinger said.

Having someone to talk to at the end of the day or even complain about a particular stressor helps the body calm down and get back into balance, he said.

Someone who can’t do that remains in a low-level fight-or-flight mode. Higher levels of stress hormones such as cortisol build up, breaking down body systems, increasing inflammation and contributing to health problems such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and weakened immune function, Waldinger said.

Loneliness and isolation are stressors in themselves, he said.

The mortality impact of social disconnection is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the US Surgeon General said in a 2023 report on the country’s ‘loneliness epidemic’.

Stressors “break down our bodies in all kinds of ways,” says David Sbarra, professor of psychology and director of the Laboratory for Social Connectedness and Health at the University of Arizona.

People also often try to regulate the negative effects of stress by drinking, smoking or using drugs, which are other ways to have adverse health consequences, Sbarra said.

In contrast, having broader social networks and more social activity, for example, slows and slows cognitive decline, Waldinger said. The Harvard study found that married people also lived longer than their single counterparts: an average of five to 12 years longer for women and seven to 17 years longer for men.

Why retirement can be stressful

The transition to retirement “is a time of stress,” Sbarra said.

Firstly, there is a ‘turn’ that is accompanied by identity transition. Retirees are closing a chapter of their lives and must choose the contours of their next chapter, he said.

That stress can become chronic if people don’t manage the transition well, and physical health can suffer, he added.

More from Personal Finance:
Why people don’t wait to claim social security
You may be saving more in your 401(k) without even knowing it
Why not tap your retirement savings to buy a home?

Relationships and the quality of those connections “play a key role” in helping regulate stress, Sbarra said. However, most of many people’s need for close relationships can be met at work, he said. In such cases, retirement removes these interactions.

“Some people say, ‘It’s too late for me’” to make new social connections, Waldinger said.

“One of the things we know from research: it’s not too late. People make all kinds of new connections and friendships as they get older, at all stages of life,” he added.

Does money play a role in retirement happiness?

Portrait images | Getty Images

Experts say finances influence happiness in retirement to some extent.

“Your (financial needs) need to be met,” Waldinger said.

Just as the lack of strong social connections is a cause of stress, so too is the lack, or perceived lack, of financial resources, says Yochai Shavit, research director at the Stanford University Center on Longevity.

However, if the goal of retirement is to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life, social capital is just as important as financial capital, he said.

“We are very strategic when it comes to our money and planning for our retirement, and perhaps not the same way strategic… when it comes to planning for our social and emotional capital,” Shavit said.

3 steps to strengthen your relationships

The Harvard research shows that it is not only the amount of social connections that is important; it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters, Waldinger said.

For example, living amid conflict is “really bad” for our health, he said in his TED Talk. A high-conflict marriage without much affection may be worse for your health than, say, divorce, he said.

Moreover, loneliness is a subjective experience, he told CNBC. For example, some people are introverts who only need one or two meaningful relationships.

“You can be lonely and have a lot of people around you, or you can not be lonely and be a hermit on a mountain,” he said.

Near-retirees or retirees who want to assess the quality of their relationships and/or strengthen their existing connections can take three steps, Waldinger said.

Ask first: Do I have enough people to feel connected to in my life? Am I connected to others in the way I want to be?

“It’s really about checking in with yourself,” Waldinger said.

Second, assess whether you can improve relationships with the people you already know in your life and who you value and enjoy spending time with. Can you do more with what you already have?

This could be anyone: perhaps a sibling, friends, or a romantic partner. For example, you can replace screen time with people time, spice up a relationship by doing something new together like long walks or date nights, check in with a family member you haven’t spoken to in years. Even talking to someone on the phone or sending a text or email can help.

“It doesn’t have to be tough,” Waldinger said.

Third, assess whether you can make new connections.

One of the easiest and fastest ways to do this is to do something you enjoy or care about with people you don’t know yet, Waldinger said.

For example, join a gardening club, a political campaign, a church group or a campaign to prevent climate change, he said.

It becomes easier to start conversations with new people because you have this thing in common, he added.

The people in the Harvard study who were happiest after retirement were those who actively worked “to replace colleagues with new playmates,” Waldinger said in his TED Talk.

“Relationships are messy and complicated, and the hard work of taking care of family and friends is not sexy or glamorous,” he said during that TED Talk. “It’s also for life. It never ends.”

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