Retire Better: Seniors say this one thing — by far — is the definition of a life well-lived


“Gee, I wish I had spent more time at the office,” said nobody ever. 

And why would anyone wish that, anyway? Most people aged 55 and over say they’d much rather be remembered for more than their career. 

That’s according to a study by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management and Age Wave, which studies aging issues. When asked to define “a life well lived,” only 27% said career success. Being wealthy wasn’t the answer, either: Only 10% said that defined a good life. At the bottom was something that most folks never have to worry about anyway: “being well-known/famous.” Only 3% said that was important. 

These answers cut against the grain of what society often tells us. Money, power, fame, more, more, more. That’s what it’s all about. Big houses, fancy cars, living large. Isn’t that the American way? 


The survey shows—and it’s not even close—that the No. 1 way in which people define a good life is “having family and friends that love me.” The answer was nearly universal, cited by 94% of respondents. After this came “making a positive impact on society (75%). Having a high-powered job or bunking down each night in a McMansion might be nice, but in the end such things don’t mean that you’re loved or respected or that you’ve made your community a better place. 

What’s also interesting here is that the responses to the Merrill/AgeWave survey are generally what I call “wealth neutral,” meaning that people across the wealth spectrum pretty much gave the same answers to key questions. For example, 70% of respondents with investible assets of $5 million or more said “the memories I’ve shared with my loved ones” is what they most want to be remembered for; 71% of those with $50,000 or less in investible assets said the same thing. 

And being loaded? Only 5% of those with $5 million or more in investible assets wanted to be remembered for that; 3% of those on the other end of the wealth spectrum said the same thing. 

Apparently the Beatles were right: Money can’t buy you love.

The study also revealed a few things that more Americans should pay attention to. For example, only 18% of those 55 and older have prepared the three critical documents that everyone should have: 1) a will, 2) a healthcare directive, and 3) a durable power of attorney. 

Not having these things means potentially nightmarish issues for your children and/or other relatives when you pass.

“The advantages of thorough preparation,” the study notes, “are significant for people at all income levels. They include more control over both your legacy and your late-life arrangements, including medical treatments and costs, as well as more financial security for yourself and your heirs. Preparation can also help prevent emotional difficulties and turmoil over settling your estate, such as over matters like making funeral arrangements and distributing personal possessions.” 

Speaking of “settling your estate” and “distributing personal possessions,” it’s hardly a revelation that children and relatives fight over money. All the more reason for you to decide who gets what. 

How you divide the pie should be up to you, but here’s how others do it. Two-thirds say that a child who provided them care in their later years should get a bigger inheritance than children who didn’t. Nearly one-quarter say that a child who has children of his or her own should receive a larger inheritance, and 60% say that all children—stepchildren, biological or adopted—should be treated equally. 

Meantime, why not make others happy while you’re still alive? The survey says that two-thirds—65%—of respondents plan to give some of their money away early; 8% plan to give it all away; and the rest, 27% will give it away after they pass. 

So get your affairs in order now, no matter who you are and how much money you have. Be sure you do so with trusted professionals. You’ll be doing yourself—and your loved ones a huge favor.

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