The Tiny Trick To Being Happy In Retirement

Happiness is like a bonfire that needs fuel to burn brightly.

Retired couple at airbnb looking at a bonfire MART PRODUCTION | Pexels, ArtRachen01 | Canva

We are rolling toward the three-year mark of our early retirement, and I have to say, it’s been both a wild ride and an easy sail. When we decided to sell our home and most of our worldly possessions and hit the road in a 21-foot teardrop trailer, I had no idea what to expect or whether I would enjoy the experience.

Initially, I hid that I agreed to this unconventional decision because it had been my wife’s dream to be untethered from the typical societal constructs and to hike the endless beautiful trails within our Country’s National Park system. I told myself I could do anything for a year or two, especially if I knew it would make her happy. I told her that I was all in on this wild adventure with her. I could see the doubt in her eyes, but I made sure to sell my enthusiasm, leaving her no choice but to believe me.


RELATED: We Retired Early And Moved Into A Trailer — What We Learned After Our First Year

The two and a half years leading up to our retirement had been weighty and depleting. My mother had a stroke in November of 2018 that left her unable to live on her own. As her medical power of attorney, it fell to me to make the decisions about her care, and when she died in November of 2019, I was faced with settling her estate. Shortly after my mom died, my beloved Australian labradoodle lost his battle with doggy dementia after thirteen wonderful years with me. Shortly after, the world turned upside down as COVID-19 began spreading like a California wildfire in August. My wife and I both worked in healthcare, so we experienced a unique brand of agony that left us both weary in a way we didn’t feel we could recover.


Heading into retirement, "happy" was not a word I would use to describe myself. Though I felt a measure of excitement about walking away from a satisfying career, knowing I’d done well, I was too exhausted and unsure of our future to feel happy.

I received many accolades and positive strokes during my career and had the privilege of working in a position that was tailor-made for me. I truly loved my job, knew I was good at it, and felt happy succeeding. So, looking into a future void of praise and success caused me to wonder if I’d be happy with the untethered life we had planned.

RELATED: My Darkest Thoughts About Early Retirement Are Coming True

Happiness is like a bonfire: It takes work to ignite and watchful tending to keep it burning. One thing I was sure of when we headed into retirement was that I wanted to figure out the trick to being — and staying — happy apart from my situations. I wanted to build a bonfire of happiness that would burn for years to come. I just needed to figure out how.


The Trick To Being Happy In RetirementPhoto: bmphotographer / Shutterstock

Bonfires are mesmerizing — the rhythm of the flames, the crackle and snap of the wood, and the warm glow they cast on the faces of those gathered around them. Observing happy people is also captivating. They have a certain glow about them that draws us in, making us want to know more. In the same way, creating a bonfire isn’t as easy as it seems; finding happiness is trickier than I thought. Bonfires need tinder, matches, firewood, and oxygen to burn. Happiness is much the same.

Heading into retirement, it felt like my bonfire had been doused with rainwater with only an errant ember left glowing. Once we hit the road, I was surprised to feel the thrill of what we were doing. Going from a career laden with problem-solving and people management to living with the freedom to go wherever I pleased was exactly what I needed.


I know this isn’t the life for most people, especially not those who crave security and stability. But for me, it became the oxygen my bonfire needed to reignite. If I have learned anything in the past three years, it is that there is deep joy in holding life with an open hand. So many things don’t go as planned when traveling as we do, and we’ve learned the art of not investing energy in the outcomes. When we detach from how we think things should go, we set ourselves up to be happier. Practicing detachment is like having an unlimited supply of dry, seasoned firewood to keep your bonfire burning.

RELATED: Why I'm Giving Up My Cushy Job To Travel The World In An RV

Lately, we’ve both noticed a cool breeze tickling our faces. The breeze was so faint initially that neither of us detected it, but with time, it grew in force until our balance shifted, and we wondered what was coming our way. The winds of change are swirling around us, but we aren’t yet crystal clear about which direction they’re blowing. When we are locked into our daily routines, we often don’t make our senses available to decipher the messages coming our way, so we’ve planned a little retreat to get clear.


We’ve booked an Airbnb in Asheville, North Carolina, and look forward to quieting the noise so we can hear the still, small voice of destiny calling us. I can’t wait to listen to what she has to say. We’ve loved our time in the trailer, but we are both beginning to desire a more permanent home base where we can plant some roots again. We aren’t sure if that will mean a plot of land where we can park our trailer or perhaps the purchase of a tiny home somewhere. We know we’ll continue to travel, but we will likely decide to stay in one place a few more months out of the year.

There is something to be said for experiencing happiness. Though many seem to be on a constant quest to find it, we’ve discovered that happiness isn’t something we discover outside ourselves.

For me, happiness is found in living an authentic life rather than a life of duty. It’s found in understanding what I need and being willing to give myself whatever that might be. I find happiness in loving my grandson extravagantly and without restraint, being kind to others, and doing little things to surprise my partner. Happiness has not been a thing to possess, but rather how I live my life. It’s making decisions that support my values and being willing to shift and move with fluidity when the terrain changes.


Happiness is like a mesmerizing bonfire. We can enjoy the flames’ dance and feel the embers’ warmth. We can delight in the crackling wood and appreciate the glowing light it provides. But we must be careful not to reach for it to possess it. Instead, we give it oxygen and fuel to keep it burning brightly even in a rainstorm.

RELATED: The Age At Which You're Most Likely To Be Happy

Kim Kelly Stamp (she/her) is a writer and speaker who writes about authenticity, retirement, relationships, and life on the road.