Your vision of retirement could be all wrong

December 02, 2007|By SUSAN REIMER

Boomers, I think, anticipate their retirement in ways our parents did not.

We not only save for it -- our parents expected their companies to sustain them and we do not -- we think of retirement as a well-deserved vacation, while our parents might have felt discarded, put out to pasture.

Some of my fellow boomers can't imagine not working and expect to leave their offices on a gurney. Some don't believe they will ever be able to afford not to work.

But some imagine a retirement filled with recreation, hobbies, travel and grandchildren. After a lifetime of striving, they believe they will finally be happy.

They are probably wrong.

Daniel Gilbert, a professor of psychology at Harvard and author of Stumbling on Happiness, now in paperback, makes the case that, while human beings are the only species that can imagine what the future will be like, we are forever getting it wrong.

In his delightfully amusing but soundly argued book, he says that we can't know what will make us happy in the future because we will change between now and when the future arrives.

The person we imagine ourselves to be when we retire will be a different person than the person we are now, imagining our retirement.

"It is easier to simulate what is going to happen in the future," said Gilbert in a telephone interview, "than it is to simulate the person that it is going to happen to."

We can imagine the gold watch and the moving van taking us to Arizona, he said. And the person who will be pocketing that watch and making that move will have our face and our fingerprints, but will think and react just a little bit differently -- just enough to change the response to this experience.

Also, he writes, our imagination is so faulty -- and our brain relies so much on cognitive short cuts -- that we build a vision of the future based on false or at least misleading information.

Like the woman who remembers childbirth as less painful that it actually was.

"The classic mistake is thinking that the things we enjoy the most in small doses in our daily life are things that we will enjoy in big doses," he said.

"We understand this about food. If someone offered you a bite of chocolate or even two bites of chocolate, you would say, `Yum.'

"But if someone offered you 3,000 bites of chocolate, you instinctively know it would make you sick."

We probably think that playing golf every day -- something we only get to do during a couple of precious weekends a year -- would make us happy.

But what if it is like 3,000 bites of chocolate?

Gilbert has all sorts of science to back up his argument that we are deluded -- not just about the past, which we mis-remember, but about the future, which we invent.

Gilbert recommends that if we want to know if some choice or some event -- like buying a dog, having children or retiring -- will make us happy, we ask people who actually have a dog, children or have retired what it is like.

(On the topic of children, Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness that indicators of happiness are actually lowest among those who have children but increase exponentially as the children leave the nest, whereupon we mis-remember what a joy it was to raise them. )

But we don't ask others what it is like to have a dog or children, or what it is like to retire, because we don't believe their experiences apply to us. We think we are special.

We're not, argues Gilbert. What makes other people happy will probably make us happy, too.

But what if the loss of the structure of a job, what if the loss of a paycheck that says we are worth something, what if the extra down time allows the dark thoughts to creep in -- what if retirement does not make us happy?

There are dozens of books on the subject, but the bottom line seems to be that happiness comes from connections with friends and family and doing good -- anything from building houses for the homeless to simply smiling at strangers on the street.

One could argue that we will have more time for both of those things when we retire.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

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