04/24/2012 05:38 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2012

A Graceful Exit: How to Retire Happily

Those of us old enough to remember phones without touchpads, much less texting, certainly remember the old Morton salt slogan "When it rains, it pours." It's an iconic advertising campaign that resonated nearly 100 years ago -- and still rings true today. Need an example? There are 81 million baby boomers in the United States. That's 35 percent of the population and they're getting ready to retire. It's not just going to rain, it's about to pour.

Many baby boomers can't remember life without work. After nearly half a century on the job, they've accomplished their goals, gained some measure of financial stability, and in many cases, even created their own successful business. They've done all of that with dedication and devotion, but when it comes to retirement, how do they leave the workforce gracefully?

Some measure of trepidation cannot be avoided. For those who own their own business, that anxiety is amplified many times over. Passing a family-owned business to the next generation is a challenge. Do your children have the same work ethic that made your business a success? Will they make the right choices? Will your life's work continue to grow, or shrivel into nothing? The statistics don't assuage these fears. Only 30 percent of entrepreneurs successfully pass on the family business to their kids. The number drops to 15 percent when passing to a third generation. In many cases, the children simply don't want to run the family business. In others, there was not enough planning or training for the succession. Anxiety is normal, but with the right mindset and priorities, you can overcome it.

Retirement is often thought of as a financial decision. Do I have enough money in my 401(k)? Will Social Security still be around when I need it? Will I have enough money and insurance to pay my medical bills? While those items are important, in many cases, they should be secondary to another area of your life -- happiness.

Money may provide the means to your retirement, but it does nothing to help you figure out how you want to use your wealth to live your next 20 years. Unless and until you develop a working plan for your retirement, your anxieties will continue to rain down on what could -- with some thoughtful planning -- be the happiest years of your life.

Keys to Happiness
There are three keys to happiness for everyone -- regardless of wealth or social standing. In the cases of many baby boomers who have poured themselves fully into their work, all three of these keys could be lost during retirement. Maintaining happiness as you exit the work force can be treacherous, but that transition can be navigated safely if you pay special attention to what matters most in life.

Humans are highly adaptable, but we never adapt to being alone. To thrive, we all need to have close, intimate relationships based on mutual trust, mutual caring and the ability to talk to each other without fear of judgment.

In a world where success is often measured by financial gain and hard work, some of our most meaningful and lasting relationships come at work. When there are no more morning status meetings or conference calls, loneliness can overtake a new retiree. That means it's time to re-evaluate the relationships in your life. It may be time to learn how to spend more time with your family, rekindle relationships that you haven't had time for with your busy work schedule or make new friendships. Focus on the quality of your relationships, not just the quantity. You can't go to the store to buy a better relationship, but you can spend your money to create an environment to build an experience to bond with the people you love. Take your grandchildren to a baseball game, set up a golf foursome with former colleagues or plan a special trip with your partner.


Engagement is what athletes refer to as "being in the zone." We feel engaged when we are doing a high-challenge, high-skill activity that completely absorbs our attention. We are engaged when we feel like thirty minutes have passed and suddenly realize three hours have flown by. For those of us who like our work, we feel engaged, challenged and fulfilled at the office.

So when the challenges of the workday are no longer in the picture, there can be emptiness. To replace this void, use the skills and talents you acquired over a lifetime of work in your home life. For instance, if you are particularly good at seeing possibilities, help your children think outside the box when confronted with a challenging problem. Use your design skills to map out a new flower bed for the garden. Don't let the talents -- and the joy using them has brought you -- go to waste.

Making a Difference
As a boss or an employer, many baby boomers made a difference in the lives of others by supplying a livelihood for or mentoring employees. That is a powerful feeling. The need to make a difference in the lives of others continues after retirement. Without employees to lift up, find other ways to help people. It doesn't have to be a life-changing event. It can be as simple as having a cup of coffee with a friend who is going through a difficult time. You can make a difference in the lives of others by donating your new-found time to a charity you feel passionate about, or helping to raise your grandchildren while their parents are at work.

Anxiety is a normal human emotion. You have felt it at work and at home -- and retirement will be no different. Don't let it interfere with what can be one of the most meaningful and fulfilling periods of your life. Happiness is the key to a graceful exit.

Yes, it's going to rain. But it doesn't have to pour.

David Geller is the author of Wealth & Happiness: Using Your Wealth to Create a Better Life. He also serves as a motivational speaker and the CEO of Atlanta-based GV Financial Advisors. His new book is available through or at

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