Retirement May Make You Happier, Depending on Where You Retire

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Catherine Ledner

Most people look forward to retirement as a time when they can finally clock out, control their own schedules, and take up activities that they never had the time or energy to pursue before. But some recent studies on people in their golden years aren’t so reassuring: they suggest that retirees are more prone to depression and possibly higher rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension and respiratory ailments. That’s why a new study of French workers is welcome news.

Led by Hugo Westerlund, a professor of psychology at Stockholm University, the study of more than 14,000 workers found lower rates of depression and fatigue in people after they punched their last time cards than while they were still employed.

To tease out the effect of retirement on health measures, the scientists followed employees of the French national gas and electric company for 14 years, seven years before and seven years after retirement. Most of the employees were considered members of middle to higher employment grades. Each study volunteer filled out a detailed questionnaire describing their health and mental status annually, and all participants retired by the age of 64.

Westerlund’s group found that in the year immediately after retirement, the volunteers reported 40% fewer depressive symptoms than they had in the year before their retirement. The researchers also found an 81% drop in reports of both mental and physical fatigue over the same time period.

Clearly, says Westerlund, much of the decrease in physical and mental fatigue can be traced back to relief from the stresses of work. The decline in depressive symptoms suggests that retirement may be exerting a positive mental effect too, which may have a lot to do with the generous pensions that French workers enjoy. Most retirees in that country still benefit from about 80% of their yearly salaries, says Westerlund, and that financial cushion may contribute to the rosier mental state of employees after they stop working.

“The economic or financial situation in retirement is very important,” he says. “We don’t know if the decrease in fatigue and depressive symptoms is due to the removal of something bad while in work or the addition of something good while in retirement. But no matter the reason, if life in retirement is not comfortable, then we won’t see the improvements we did.”

That’s why Westerlund cautions against translating the results to other countries, such as the U.S., where retirement plans are not as expansive. And even in European nations like France, governments are considering changes to pension plans, which may affect retirees’ health after they leave their jobs — with less of a financial safety net, workers may no longer seem so mentally and physically happy to be out of work.