This retirement planning gap is ‘hidden in plain sight,’ Harvard professor says

This retirement planning gap is ‘hidden in plain sight,’ Harvard professor says

Jose Luis Pelaez | Stone | Getty Images

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

Finances in retirement are an acute fear. About 2 in 3 people worry more about running out of money than death, according to a recent poll by Allianz Life.

Yet, there’s a notable lack of attention and concern given to the social aspect of retirement, experts said.

It’s a facet of retirement planning that’s almost “hidden in plain sight,” said Robert Waldinger, a 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 tracked thousands of Americans throughout their lives and across different generations for the past 86 years.

A core (and perhaps surprising) finding: Having good relationships — whether with partners, friends, family or others — is the “strongest predictor” of living long, healthy and happy lives into old age, more so than health factors like 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 mostly not about the money,” he added.

Put another way: “Social connections are really good for us” and “loneliness kills,” Waldinger explained in a 2015 TED Talk titled “What makes a good life?” It’s one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time.

How stress impacts our health

The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is like smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, the U.S. Surgeon General said in a 2023 report on the nation’s loneliness “epidemic.”

Stressors “break down our bodies in all kinds of ways,” said David Sbarra, a psychology professor 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 via drinking, smoking or doing drugs, which are other pathways to adverse health impacts, Sbarra said.

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

Why retirement can be stressful

The transition into retirement “is a period of stress,” Sbarra said.

For one, there’s an “upheaval” associated with identity transition. Retirees close one 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 may suffer as a result, he added.

More from Personal Finance:
Why people don’t wait to claim Social Security
You may be saving more in your 401(k) and not even know it
Why not to tap into retirement savings to buy a home

Relationships and the quality of those connections “play a key role” in helping regulate stress. However, the bulk of many people’s close relationship needs may be met at work, Sbarra said. In such cases, retirement strips away those interactions.

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

“One of the things we know from study: It isn’t too late. People make all kinds of new connections and friendships when they’re older, in all phases of life,” he added.

Does money play a role in retirement happiness?

3 steps to strengthen your relationships

Source Reference

Latest stories