Yes you can!

Be happy as you get older!

Being happy is a key to your well-being and quality of life. It enhances your inner strength and makes you emotionally resilient. Happiness is one of the things that brings joy and contentment into our lives. These are precious commodities and are just as important as we get older as they were when we were young. The new science of aging shows that happiness is an essential component for aging well and thriving.

So what is happiness anyway?

Happiness relates to how we feel, but it is more than a pleasurable feeling or a passing mood. It’s a deep sense of flourishing, an optimal state of being. Of course, being happy is not some magical cure-all. Individuals who have a happy life don’t deny negative emotions or pretend to feel joyful all the time. We all encounter adversity, disappointment, illnesses, tragedy, and loss of loved ones. It’s completely natural to feel anger, sadness, frustration, and despair. To suggest otherwise would be to deny our emotional responses. Happiness is about being able to make the most of the good times, and being able to cope effectively with the inevitable bad times.

We all want happiness, but finding it isn’t the easiest venture. For centuries, people have looked to philosophy, religion, and psychology for answers. But in the past decade, scientific studies uncovered some surprising findings into what makes us happy. One of the striking results shows that happiness is within our conscious control, more than we previously thought. More and more medical research shows that genes don’t control our biology, and it is highly unlikely that a complex behavior such as happiness is controlled by a single gene. Although our genetic makeup and circumstances matter, a huge proportion of the variations in happiness between us comes from the choices we make and the activities we choose. So, although we may not be able to change our inherited characteristics or the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we still have the ability to change how happy we are by the way we approach our lives.

Below is a brief summary of what the latest research has identified as the major focus areas that make a significant difference in people’s happiness. More importantly, the focus areas are all actions that we can choose to make. The choices are yours.

Connect with others

Express your heart. Your relationship with others is one of the most important factors for happiness. People who have strong relationships are happier, healthier, and live longer. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we have a large network of friends or not. What makes a difference is how often we actively participate in activities and share personal feelings with a close friend or a family member. Having a strong relationship with family and friends provides love and support, and enhances our feeling of self-worth. The ability to express genuine interest in what people say and to respond in encouraging ways is a powerful means to enrich relationships and cultivate positive emotions. So it’s crucial to maintain and strengthen your relationships as well as make new connections. This can be accomplished by making more time for people who matter and by making new connections (stop and chat with a neighbor and learn the name of someone new).

Cultivate kindness

Care for others. People who care for others on a consistent basis are happier and healthier. This seems to be especially true as we get older. So helping others is not only good for them, but is also good for us as well. Doing things for others also creates a stronger connection within the community and builds a stronger society for everyone. It’s not all about money; you can also give of your time, ideas, and energy. Cultivating kindness can involve volunteering as part of an organized group or club. It can be as simple as reaching out to a friend, colleague, or a neighbor who is struggling with an issue. If you want to cultivate kindness, find ways to give compliments, ways to celebrate, and ways to support someone you care about.

Discover your Mojo

Find your purpose. When we are deeply involved in a challenging and rewarding activity that gives us a purpose, we experience a sense of satisfaction and self-worth. Finding your purpose gives your life direction and meaning. It’s not just reaching a certain goal, but reaching for things that make you want to get up in the morning and start a new day. It requires being involved in the present; what you’re doing, feeling and what you’re thinking. People who have meaning and purpose in their lives are happier and get the most out of what they do. It might come from doing a job that makes a difference. It can be as simple as being the best grandparent, volunteering in a community education program, or just helping a friend. The answers vary for each of us, but they all involve being connected to something bigger than ourselves.

Learn to be thankful

Treasure gratitude. Most of us associate gratitude with saying “thank you” to someone who has helped us or given us a gift. Gratitude is not just an action word, but a deeper positive emotion. A more meaningful definition comes from the Harvard Medical School newsletter, which states that gratitude is, “A thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals —whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.” Learning to be grateful and aware does wonders for our well-being. More importantly, it helps us to focus on others and stop dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. Studies show that grateful people have a more positive attitude, a greater sense of belonging and optimism. Gratitude and optimism have been shown to enhance the immune system, lower the incidence of depression, and prevent chronic diseases. Grateful people also receive more social support and are more resilient. One way to embrace gratitude is to start each day by giving thanks: Thanks for life, this new day, my family, and loved ones. Thank you.

Be creative

Keep learning. Mental activity and learning don’t stop at fifty. They’re just as important as we get older. Creativity and learning affect our well-being in lots of positive ways. New research using sophisticated imaging techniques shows that staying mentally active revitalizes specific nerve centers of the brain and opens up new neural pathways. Staying mentally active exposes us to new ideas and helps us to stay curious and engaged. It also gives us a sense of accomplishment and helps boost our self-confidence. There are many ways to learn new things throughout our lives, not just through formal classes. We can learn a new skill or share a skill with friends, join a club, learn to sing, play a new sport, and so much more.

Care for the mind

Embrace your mind-body-spirit connection. It’s easy to get caught up in the continuous cycle of work, running errands, social engagements, taking care of family, and so on. After a while, with your busy schedule, life becomes such a routine that you don’t stop to think about yourself. A number of studies show a close connection between the mind-body-spirit, in which each of these components require nurturing and care. Often, what’s good for the body is also good for the mind and soul, and vice versa. The importance of this connection was recently confirmed by a landmark medical review in which twenty-three studies were evaluated. The major conclusion reached from the review showed that a positive lifestyle that includes exercise, nutrition, sunlight, and sleep not only improves the body but also lifts our spirits, makes us happier, and significantly lowers anxiety/depression. The reverse is also true: poor eating habits and an unhealthy attitude have a negative effect on our well-being. For example, excess sugar consumption not only leads to obesity and chronic inflammation but also to depression and anxiety. Similarly, negative attitudes and beliefs lead to depression and anxiety, but also to obesity. More importantly, a negative lifestyle severely impairs one of our important coping skills, resilience. Resilience not only can be learned, but is highly dependent on a positive lifestyle.

So, in conclusion, the scientific evidence is compelling—happiness does matter. The pursuit of happiness is not about some fluffy, nice-to-have or middle-class luxury. It’s not about privilege, money, or smiling all of the time. It’s about helping people to live better lives and creating a society that is more productive, healthy, and cohesive. As Aristotle stated: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Time and again research shows that people who say they’re happy have strong connections with community and with other people. That’s one of the secrets for aging well and thriving.

By Dr. Rod Rhoades

The article is based on Dr. Rod Rhoades’ new book entitled “Aging Well: Staying Younger, Smarter, and Fit”. To learn more about aging well and thriving, please visit his website, or click the book for purchase information.

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