The University Record, September 16, 1998
By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services
How many friends you have, not how much money you have, predicts how happy you're likely to be right after you retire. That's one of the findings from a U-M study suggesting that as baby boomers age, they should probably pay as much attention to their social lives as their financial portfolios.
The study, conducted by graduate student Alicia Tarnowski and psychologist Toni Antonucci, a senior researcher at the Institute for Social Research (ISR), provides evidence that post-retirement changes in life satisfaction are common. It also finds that the size of a recently retired person's social support network, not the size of that person's wallet or state of physical health, is the strongest influence on whether life satisfaction changes for better or worse.
Using data on 253 people over the age of 50, drawn from a nationally representative sample of U.S. households, Tarnowski presented the findings in July at the annual meeting of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.
"Retirement is a major life transition," says Tarnowski, noting that while some studies have found psychological well-being increases after retirement, others have found that it drops. In addition to investigating the effect of retirement on life satisfaction, the researchers wanted to learn why some people feel better about their lives after they retire while others feel worse.
As part of the study, they analyzed data on 100 people who were all working when first interviewed, but had retired when interviewed again four years later. Most of these recent retirees reported some change in life satisfaction, with 25 percent saying they were more satisfied and 34 percent saying they were less satisfied with their lives after retirement. The remaining 41 percent reported levels of life satisfaction about the same as when they were still working.
The researchers analyzed how physical health, income, the number of negative life events, including divorce and death of a spouse, experienced in the last four years, and demographic variables, including age and gender, influenced the changes in life satisfaction reported by recent retirees. The most powerful predictor of life satisfaction right after retirement, they found, was the size of a person's social support network. Those who were more satisfied with life had networks of about 16 people, on average, while those less satisfied with life had networks of fewer than 10 people.
For the 92 people who were still working, social network size was not an important predictor of changes in life satisfaction. And among the 61 people who had been retired longer than four years, large social network size predicted a drop, not a rise, in life satisfaction.
"Our findings suggest that new retirees may need more emotional support than they did when they were working," Tarnowski says. "Just having a number of people who provide emotional support, listen to your concerns, and let you know that you're still valued right after you retire seems to make a big difference. It fits with other research showing that social support buffers stress, and even positive life changes like retirement can be sources of considerable stress."
Long-term retirees tended to be about 10 years older, on average, than the new retirees, Tarnowski points out, so their health may be worse and their large social networks may reflect a greater need for help, which might be why, for them, larger networks are linked with decreased life satisfaction.
Funding for the study was provided by the National Institute on Aging and the National Cancer Institute. The data used for the analysis were collected originally by Antonucci and ISR psychologist Robert Kahn, co-author of Successful Aging: The MacArthur Foundation Study with Jack W. Rowe (Pantheon Books).