Your 401(k) Isn’t Enough: To Invest for Retirement, Build Friendships and Hobbies

Wall Street Journal - December 29, 2022

Don’t wait for retirement to start cultivating the relationships and activities that will sustain you in your postwork years

Investing for retirement means more than just stashing money in a 401(k).

It’s equally important to cultivate the interests, relationships and activities that will fill our days with purpose and satisfaction when we retire

This line of thinking is backed up by the long-running Harvard Study of Adult Development. Since 1938, the study has followed hundreds of Harvard University graduates and inner city Boston residents and their descendants to understand predictors of longevity and health and happiness in later life.

“What are the best predictors? We thought it was going to be their cholesterol level. We thought it was going to be their blood pressure,” Prof. Robert Waldinger, the study’s director, said at a recent Stanford University conference. “It turned out to be the quality of their relationships.”

Since pursuits and friendships can compound over time like stocks and bonds, the best time to start investing in your future is in your 30s, 40s, and 50s. It’s also important to have this sense of purpose because it influences longevity and predicts reduced risk for diseases, including Alzheimer’s and stroke, according to research from Carol Ryff, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Ideally, people should start focusing on relationships and developing a sense of purpose that transcends work in midlife, since delaying those tasks can make the transition into retirement difficult.

Here are strategies for building a balanced portfolio of interests and relationships:

Friendships take effort

There are many reasons people in midlife neglect friendships. The most obvious is time constraints, given the demands of raising children and caring for aging parents while navigating careers.

But Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale University, and other researchers say people also have misperceptions about relationships that can cause them to give up on old friendships.

“We think friendships just happen and that if the friendship is genuine, we won’t have to put work in,” said Prof. Santos. “But the research suggests friendships take time.”

On average, it takes 200 hours over four months to build a close friendship and up to 60 hours to establish a casual friendship, said Jeffrey Hall, a professor at the University of Kansas and author of a 2019 study that tracked the social lives of almost 500 people after starting college or relocating. 

Prof. Hall said friendships fade without periodic efforts to reconnect.

People also exaggerate the risks of reaching out to old friends, including awkwardness and rejection, and underestimate the pleasures, according to research by Nicholas Epley, director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

“Failure to recognize how interested others are in engaging with us keeps us overly avoidant in ways that harm our well-being,” he said.

Set aside time to invest in the relationships that are most important to you, advises Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford University’s Center on Longevity. Her research indicates that having fewer than three close ties can be risky. 

Recent data point to a troubling trend: Americans ages 55 to 64 “are far less socially engaged” with their communities than was the case for people of the same ages two decades ago, said Prof. Carstensen.

Don’t overlook the benefits of being social with strangers.

Studies by researchers including Prof. Epley show brief interactions between train commuters raised the happiness levels of both parties. Those who realize strangers are interested in connecting are more likely to rekindle old friendships, said Prof. Epley. 

“When reaching out to friends, don’t be a perfectionist. It’s not about what you say. It’s whether you are there for people and are engaged,” said Prof. Epley.

Try to build routines into your friendships, said Prof. Hall, who schedules monthly phone calls with a good friend. He also suggests you focus on listening, rather than what you want to say.

“Joke around, catch up on life, and have meaningful conversations,” he said.

Hobbies, passions and pursuits

Careers can be all-consuming, especially in the peak earnings years that often coincide with midlife. This makes it important to experiment when laying the groundwork for what comes next, said Marc Freedman, founder of CoGenerate, a nonprofit working to bridge generational divides.

“Be realistic about the need to experiment, understanding that it may take time and involve some bumps in the road before you can make this kind of engagement a core part of your life,” Mr. Freedman said.

Think about the interests you had earlier in life, advises Jaye Smith, a retirement coach and co-founder of Reboot Partners LLC.

Ms. Smith cites a client who recently left a corporate career to teach preschool, something the woman had done briefly after college.

Another strategy Ms. Smith recommends is drawing up a bucket list of the “things you want to make sure you do in your life” and starting to do them now.

The more specific your list is, the more likely you are to accomplish your goals. For instance, you might include exploring national parks and learning French rather than traveling and taking classes.

When goals are ambitious, break them into steps you can accomplish while working. If you want to write a book, start with a journal or blog.

How are you preparing for retirement, or how did you prepare, beyond the financial considerations? Join the conversation below.

“Why hold back on the satisfaction and rewards?” said Ms. Smith, whose Reboot Partners holds weekend retreats for people looking for inspiration.

Think about purpose, advises Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who wrote about her own reckoning with how to make new investments in midlife in “Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife.”

She said she discovered “a big purpose and a little purpose” after leaving her job as a National Public Radio reporter in 2014 due to a paralyzed vocal cord.

Ms. Hagerty defines little purpose as “a source of joy that can be tucked into the nooks and crannies of a busy life.”

 “I’ve met new friends, joined a cycling team, and am competing again,” said the former college cross-country team member who has become an avid cyclist.

For Ms. Hagerty, the way to a big purpose was to use her skills and experience to help a cause larger than her career.

“It’s a project that would be meaningful to me even if no one else cares about it,” said Ms. Hagerty, who wrote a magazine article that helped vacate the murder conviction of an innocent man. She is now writing a book on the subject. 

Write to Anne Tergesen at