So what are some of the things in life that make you happy?
Beach vacations? Curling up with a good book by the fireplace on a chilly night? Retirement planning?
Wait ... what?
If you’re like most people, that last option probably doesn’t rank high on your list of happy activities—and that’s partly why a lot of people have trouble reaching their retirement savings goals.
“Saving money in itself can be a drag,” admits John Beshears, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “My research, as well as that of others, suggests that humans have an innate taste for instant gratification—and it’s difficult to make short-term sacrifices in the pursuit of a long-term gain.”
So when we’re faced with a tempting form of instant gratification—say, binge-watching a new show on Netflix—more often than not, we’ll opt for that over “going to the trouble of spending a Saturday afternoon enrolling in an employer’s 401(k) plan or setting up an IRA,” Beshears says.
But what if we told you there were some strategies that could help make retirement planning—and reaching your goals—feel a bit more bliss-inducing?
The truth of the matter is that if you approach the planning process from a happy place now, you can help set yourself up for a happy retirement later.
And there’s research to back that up: According to a statistic in Northwestern Mutual's guide, “Retirement Saving: 5 Key Insights You Need to Know,” a whopping 91% of highly disciplined planners say they are happy in retirement.
Want to be part of that 91%? Check out these five optimistically minded approaches to heart-happy (and disciplined) retirement planning.
Step #1: Indulge in a Goal-Based Guilty Pleasure
Turns out Mary Poppins was right: A spoonful of sugar can help the medicine go down—and that includes the act of saving for retirement.
Let’s face it: Saving for the future can be a tough pill to swallow because you often have to make sacrifices in order to reach your goal.
One way to outsmart that not-so-happy feeling of deprivation? Try spoiling yourself.
Research from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business found that linking your savings progress to enjoyable treats—a concept dubbed “temptation bundling”—can help boost motivation and push you to reach your goals.
Of course, we’re not talking about a big-ticket splurge. Rather, it should be a small indulgence that can provide a significant happiness boost—like indulging in an ice cream sundae when you up that nest egg savings contribution by 1%!
“Think of something fun and only give yourself permission to enjoy it when you take a virtuous step toward your financial retirement intention,” suggests Beshears.
Bottom line: If you tie happy splurges to retirement-planning milestones, each time you achieve one of your goals, it can help motivate you to keep hitting them.
Step #2: Give Yourself a Calculated Savings Boost
Have you ever really run the numbers on just how powerful getting an early start on retirement savings can be?
“Research has found that people robustly underestimate the power of compound growth,” Beshears says. “But once they see a calculation showing just how much it can add up, it becomes more vivid in people’s minds—and gets them excited about socking money away.”
And when it comes to compound growth, a little can actually go a long way.
Consider this hypothetical example in Northwestern Mutual's retirement saving guide, which breaks down how much more you could save in a nest egg by simply boosting your savings rate by 1% per year.
Let’s say a woman earns $100,000 a year and has 25 years until retirement. She currently has $80,000 in retirement savings and contributes 5% of her salary toward her nest egg each year.
If she maintains that 5% savings rate, assuming a 7% annual return on her investment, she’ll have accumulated over $850,000 by that 25-year mark.
However, if she were to increase her savings percentage by 1% each year until she reached a 15% savings rate, she could accumulate at least $650,000 more—for a total of $1,502,281 in 25 years.
So think about running your own compound growth digits—an exercise that could help get you happily psyched about finding even small ways to funnel more money into your nest egg.
“When it comes to goal attainment, sheer positive thinking is counterproductive. You also need to explore the inner obstacles that stand in the way of your dream.”
Step #3: Dabble in Some Wishful Thinking
Positive thinking is often touted as a key to wish fulfillment: Simply envision yourself achieving your dream—and abracadabra—it will manifest!
The only problem? It doesn’t really work.
Research by Gabriele Oettingen, a psychology professor at New York University and author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation,” found that people who fantasized about success—from losing weight to getting a good grade on a test—actually fared worse in the results department than those who didn’t.
Yes, imagining a good outcome can lower your blood pressure and put you in a good mood, but as a result of feeling so satisfied, you’re less likely to take the action necessary to achieve your goal.
“When it comes to goal attainment, sheer positive thinking is counterproductive,” Oettingen explains. “You also need to explore the inner obstacles that stand in the way of your dream.”
In other words, in order to succeed, optimistic thinking should be paired with practical methods to overcome the challenges you’ll inevitably encounter.
Based on these findings, Oettingen developed a four-step method she calls WOOP (Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan) to help you bring your dreams to happy fruition.
When it comes to retirement planning, step one is to formulate a specific wish you’re truly passionate about, such as being able to afford traveling the world.
Once you’ve nailed down your wish, step two is to visualize the best possible outcome. “Ask yourself: What would my life look like? What would it mean to me? How would I feel?” Oettingen says. “Then identify the outcome in a short sentence.”
Now it’s time to tackle the obstacle step. “Identify what it is inside of you that’s holding you back [from reaching your goal],” Oettingen says. “Only then will you be able to find the behavior that will allow you to overcome it.”
For example, perhaps your obstacle is that you’d rather buy a new car now than save for retirement because you like how it makes you feel successful in the present.
After you’ve pinpointed your obstacle, the last step is to create an “if-then” plan by asking yourself what you can do to circumvent this challenge.
Your plan could be something along the lines of “if I attend my friend’s birthday dinner, I’ll derail my budget, so I’ll meet everyone for a drink after instead.”
According to Oettingen, envisioning an if-then plan helps build cognitive links between your retirement ideals, the hurdles you’ll encounter and the action needed to overcome those hurdles.
“As a result, you’ll do the right thing without having to think about it,” she explains, “because your brain is wired to make the choice that’s in line with your goals.”
Step #4: Take a Fresh Start Approach to Your Planning
What do New Year’s Day, your birthday and the first of the month all have in common?
They’re apparently ideal times to embark on a new course of retirement planning action, thanks to what researchers have dubbed “the fresh start effect.”
“There is evidence that people experience a peak in motivation to engage in long-term changes during so-called fresh start moments like these,” Beshears explains. “It’s like you’re entering a new era when you can shed your past self and create a better version.”
According to Beshears, you’re more effective at setting and achieving goals when you do so at a temporal landmark, because it allows you to shed failures, break out of habitual thinking and see the big picture—all key ingredients for beginning anew.
So consider galvanizing your retirement plans during a fresh start moment—like using the first of the month as the day you’ll finally increase your 401(k) contribution.
Step #5: Envision 80-Year-Old You
When you’re climbing the career ladder or chasing after your toddler, it can be hard to picture yourself playing bingo decades from now.
According to a stat in Northwestern Mutual's retirement saving guide, more than two-thirds of Americans say today’s fast-paced life makes it hard to stick to long-term goals like saving for retirement.
“Feeling a sense of connection to one’s future self can impact long-term decision-making, turning a spender into a saver.”
But finding the time to envision your AARP years could help you stash more cash for that down-the-road you.
“Looking ahead in time and feeling a sense of connection to one’s future self can impact long-term financial decision-making, turning a spender into a saver,” Hal Hershfield, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, Los Angeles, has said.
In a study conducted by Hershfield, half of the participants were shown digital avatars of their current selves, while the other half looked at avatars resembling a senior-citizen version of themselves.
Afterward, they were asked to divide $1,000 into four vessels: a present for someone they cared about, a fun event, a retirement fund, and a checking account.
Those who had viewed older versions of themselves allocated nearly twice as much money toward retirement.
“Seeing that image made people feel a greater connection to their future self, which made retirement savings more meaningful and led to an increase in savings,” Beshears says.
To try this exercise for yourself, visualize your retirement as vividly as you can. Where will you live? How will you spend your days? What might you look like?
Close your eyes and bring in as many sensations as possible: the smell of the sea breeze at your beach cottage, the sound of your grandchildren laughing, the feel of grass beneath your feet as you vacation in the European countryside.
Once you conjure what your golden years could really look like, you can take it a step further by creating a vision board to display in a prominent place to help keep you motivated to save.
By having a concrete vision of the future you that you’re saving for—as opposed to an abstract destiny—you can help set yourself up to retire with a bang. And that’s something to get pretty happy about.