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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Pihl

How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie J. Zelinski (summary and notes)

I think this book is an antidote to the 40 year career. Not so much that it stops you from working from 40 years, although it might do that. Rather, it unwinds much of the stress, high-pressure self-talk, addiction to busy-ness, and attachment to work identities that keep people from retiring earlier and enjoying life. By reading this book, I feel like I have taken a step away from "more" and a step towards "enough." And because that's what I aim to help my clients do, I intend to buy several copies of this book and give them as gifts. For all the rest of you, though, I hope you'll enjoy these notes as a reference point on this book.

Tips for reading the book:

  1. Feel free to skim. Not everything will grab you, and the parts that don't can feel really boring. At the same time, the most enjoyable sections are worth the purchase price many times over.

  2. Pay special attention to the bullet point lists. These are the most fun part of the book, in my opinion, because it shows you just how broad the range of possibilities are for your life. You'd be hard pressed not to find at least something worth looking into for your retirement years. The lists range from ways of saving money in retirement, to making friends, to picking ideas for travel.

  3. Along with lists, take note of the letters sent in by readers. These showcase the extraordinary adventures undertaken by ordinary people in their retirement lives. The point here isn't that you need to copy or live up to any of these stories, but rather to show that there's no limit to the number of right ways to live.


The first point Zelinski makes is that life is short. It's never too early to retire, but it will eventually be too late to enjoy life the way you used to. Many people pick their retirement dates arbitrarily, usually according to eligibility for pensions and social security. But if you have your finances figured out (discussed in the next section), there's no need to wait.

The second part of this book discusses the ways in which retirement can cost less than most people think. Here's an abridged list from page 30

  • No mortgage payments (usually)

  • No expenses associated with employment, such as daily commuting, or work clothes (nor lunches out, nor dog-sitters, nor takeout because you're too tired to cook, nor stress-related doctor's visits, nor paying for parking)

  • Lower income means paying less in taxes

  • You can move to a new location with a lower cost of living, now that commuting isn't necessary

  • No more expenses associated with raising kids or funding their educations

  • Senior's discounts

  • No more need to continue retirement savings

  • Less need to impress others

The third section is what really got to me. Zelinski talks about the value of leisure, not just for relaxing stress-free, but for living a well-rounded life. He makes the case that too much of our identities revolve around what we do for work. Of course, there's nothing wrong with having a sense of purpose and productive engagement. But there is a problem with missing out on the activities that would have brought you real joy, as well as failing to explore and discover what those activities might be. Even if you do love your work and find great pleasure in it, as I do most days, you might find that you struggle to have other interesting things to talk about with other people. I sometimes feel that I've focused too much on my work, and have become a little one-dimensional in the topics I like to discuss. Maybe you feel the same.

In either case, a good solution is to spend a little more time exploring life. That might look like going to the local art museum, or taking cooking lessons, or picking up a new sport. Rather than wait until you have the time, I recommend that you make the time now by putting something down in your calendar.

Fourth, he talks about having a sense of purpose in retirement. This seems to contradict the previous section a little, but I think what he's really talking about is balance, and having something that you enjoy doing which helps create structure in your life. He suggests you ask yourself the following questions:"

  • What is extremely important to me?

  • What makes me happy?

  • What made me happy in my childhood and my teens that I would like to do again?

  • What made me happy in my career that I would like to continue doing?

  • What would make me a much happier person? Having a lot more money or becoming famous can't be one of them.

  • What talents or skills am I most proud of?

  • What field of endeavor invariably challenges me in new and exciting ways?

  • What makes me feel most creative?

  • What special talent have I neglected while putting in long and hard hours in my career?

  • What would I like to do that I have always wanted to do, but never got around to doing?

  • How would I like to make the world a better place in my own way?

  • What sort of legacy would I like to leave?....

  • What gift do I naturally give to others?

  • What gift do I most enjoy giving to others?

  • What gift have I most often given to others?

Building on the importance of purpose, the next takeaway is to stay active. First, he talks about the dangers of passively watching tv for more than an hour or two a day. It doesn't develop your life. To replace what he calls "the idiot box," he includes a list of 300 activities for new retirees to explore, which I think is probably worth skimming through for everyone, not just retirees. It reminded me of all the fun things there are to do, all of which are better than tv. And I say this as someone who is both fully aware that we are living in the golden age of television, and who really enjoys watching tv.

The section on developing friendships is surprisingly good. I think loneliness has become so normal for a lot of people that we've forgotten how to do something about it, particularly over the last year. But, if you want to be happy and healthy, you really need social connection. Zelinkski shares a number of ways to put yourself in position to meet potential friends, which is great. Even then, though, you still have to muster the courage to put yourself out there, smile and say, "Hi! My name is [your name here]! Will you be my friend?" You can have that conversation any way you want, but the hardest part is being the one to break the awkward silence.

Although happiness gets its own section, I think the majority of the book is dedicated to creating a happy life for yourself. As he explains, happiness depends on a variety of sources, including those discussed in other chapters of the book: financial freedom, physical health, quality friendships, hobbies, purpose, community, creative fulfillment, and more.

I really like his view on happiness, in which there is not any one key to being happy, nor a secret checklist, but rather something like a buffet from which everyone can put together their own ideal plate. Happiness is more like a skill than a state of mind. Certain habits like "counting your blessings" are a powerful way to boost your happiness, as is the practice of "living in the moment."

Finally, he urges readers to go enjoy life. Don't worry about leaving an inheritance for your kids, don't try to set a "high score" by dying with a lot of money, don't forget that this is the only life you get on this earth, don't forget to relax and enjoy the ride. Just go and live it up.

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