It's no secret that money is a critical component of retirement. Without a robust retirement fund, you may be forced to spend the majority of your golden years at home rather than traveling the world or enjoying other fun (and expensive) activities.
But while having enough cash to live your ideal lifestyle is important, there's one other factor that researchers say is key to a happy retirement: a healthy social circle.
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Loneliness can be a silent killer at any age, but older adults may be more susceptible to it. Once you leave your job, you may not see your co-workers as often (or at all), and if you don't have solid friendships outside of work, you may lose your social circle altogether. Even if you do have plenty of other friends, if those friends are still working or have busy lives, you may spend most of your free time alone.
For some introverted retirees, all that alone time can be a dream come true. But if you find yourself spending the majority of your time feeling lonely, it could have a detrimental effect on your health. Some studies have linked loneliness to increased rates of depression, cognitive decline, and even death, and other researchers claim social isolation can be as physically harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
When preparing for retirement, you may be focused mostly on ensuring you have enough savings to cover all of your expenses. But one other factor to think about is how, exactly, you'll spend all your newfound free time to fight the effects of social isolation.
Combatting loneliness in retirement
You don't have to schedule every minute of your life in retirement, but if you plan to simply spend most of your time tinkering around the house, it could lead to social isolation without a strong social circle to fall back on.
If you don't have a solid group of friends or family you can rely on to recharge your social batteries when you begin to feel lonely, try to seek out opportunities to get out of the house and meet people. For example, you may join a weekly volunteer group, enroll in an exercise class, or start taking lessons or classes to improve a certain skill or hobby.
Even if you don't have much spare cash to spend on classes or other activities, you can still find ways to interact with others if you get creative. Maybe you could start a monthly get-together with your neighbors for dinner or game night, for instance, or perhaps you can strike up a conversation with fellow dog lovers at the dog park.
When building or strengthening your social circle, try your best to keep interactions face-to-face. While Facebook friends are great, they can't replace real-life friends. And although the results among researchers about the effects of social media on mental health are mixed, some studies have pointed to a link between loneliness and internet use. These researchers found that the more socially isolated a person feels, the more time they spend online -- which triggers greater feelings of loneliness, and throws them into a vicious cycle.
That being said, the internet can be a great resource when finding ways to expand your social circle. Use Facebook to find local events that interest you, for example, and see if anyone you know is attending -- you may be able to grow a friendship with someone you've already met online but never had the chance to really get to know. Or you can use resources like Meetup to join other like-minded individuals with similar interests. Whether you're interested in joining a book club, chess club, gardening club, or even just a group of 50- and 60-somethings who go out to dinner a few times a month, there's something for everyone -- if you're willing to look for it.
Easing into retirement to avoid social isolation
Another way to help ward off loneliness is to take a gradual approach to retirement. Even if you're looking forward to it, retirement can be a stressful transition. You've probably been working 40 hours or more per week for decades, and suddenly waking up one morning with nothing at all on your schedule can be a shock. For some people, that feeling is liberating. For others, though, it may feel like you've lost your purpose and don't know what to do with your life now. But if you ease into retirement by working fewer hours per week until you're fully retired, it can limit the stress and feelings of loneliness.
The benefits of gradually easing into retirement are two-fold. First, it gives you more time to strengthen social connections through work. Some employers will allow you to continue working on a part-time basis after you leave your full-time job, which gives you some additional time to stay in touch with co-workers before you dive into retirement full-time. Even if you find part-time work with a different company, any job where you're regularly interacting with your colleagues gives you a chance to build social connections.
Second, a gradual retirement allows you to slowly figure out how you're going to spend your free time. Again, you don't need to plan every second of every day, but even just a general idea of the activities you want to do can help create more structure and avoid the possibility of sitting in front of the TV all day because you have nothing else to do. When you ease into retirement, you'll gradually increase your amount of free time over the months or years -- making it less stressful than having to figure out how to spend the extra 40+ hours of free time you have all of a sudden if you were to fully retire immediately.
Retirement can be a blessing and a curse. While it's wonderful to have so much leisure time to do all the things you've been dreaming of doing for years, it can also be a lonely and isolating period in life if you don't have a strong social circle. But by working to strengthen your social connections both before and during retirement, you can ensure your golden years are as happy as possible.
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Randi Zuckerberg, a former director of market development and spokeswoman for Facebook and sister to its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Katie Brockman has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.