I recently visited my Aunt Susan, who is 92. She seems happy, has a good outlook on life and fills her days with activities that are meaningful to her. How can I be sure that my parents and loved ones age as gracefully as her?
— Kenny B., Concord
Your Aunt Susan sounds amazing, and it’s wonderful that she is enjoying life. Looking for the good in every type of situation actually has significant health impacts! The Harvard University School of Public Health has conducted more than 200 studies showing that happiness, optimism and life satisfaction correlate strongly to lower risk of diabetes, decreased issues with high blood pressure, lower rates of cardiovascular diseases and increased longevity. Other variables that enhance happiness can be a balanced diet, restful sleep, exercise, no smoking, limited alcohol use and economic security.
When many in our society think of “old age,” they focus on illnesses and disabilities, not to mention end-of-life care and death. Interestingly, studies show that people’s satisfaction with life starts increasing in their early 50s and stays on an upward trajectory through their 60s and 70s and even beyond. One study concluded that happiness derived from unusual experiences remained fairly constant, but pleasure from ordinary experiences increased as people got older. These patterns of happiness seem to hold true even across cultural differences.
Although we know that old age will have inevitable challenges, research in the area of happiness and age gives cause for optimism.
According to Laura Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity, older adults sense that time is limited and this alters their emotional perspective, causing them to invest energy in what is most meaningful to them. Usually this means sharing experiences with loved ones as opposed to collecting material possessions. This type of engagement leads to a happier state of mind.
While many factors contribute to a person’s sense of happiness, when working with older adults at our agency, we notice that the happier individuals have markedly positive attitudes. They say “please” and “thank you” and are grateful for the simple pleasures in life, like that morning cup of coffee or the laugh of their grandbaby. These seniors are complimentary and are able to see something good even in life’s challenges.
So what are some things we can do to add happiness to our lives? First and foremost is investing in meaningful connections and relationships. We always encourage our clients to search for purpose — we all need it, no matter how old we are. Volunteering can be a major pathway to happiness. This could involve providing peer support by calling or visiting someone who could use assistance due to illness, loss or isolation. It could also mean getting involved in your community and advocating for a cause that’s near to your heart.
Similar to how a balanced diet, restful sleep and exercise are keys to physical wellness, having a good sense of humor, savoring each day and not sweating the small stuff all contribute to emotional wellness. According to the Journal of Aging Research, laughter and humor not only add to feeling happy, but they can also relieve chronic and other pain in older adults.
We often discuss with our clients how they feel when they wake up in the morning. This moment has an impact on their daily attitude and will have a lot to do with how they react to interactions and activities that day. A road map for happier living can include a few simple steps:
• Start every day on a positive note
• Avoid negative people
• Look for good in yourself and others
• Believe in yourself and your own talents and unique gifts
• Don’t take negativism that comes your way personally
• Affirm a spirit of gratitude throughout the day
• Utilize a support system of pets, faith, special people, hobbies and your passions
• Live in the moment with a sense of purpose
• Don’t hesitate to fall in love when the chance comes your way!
Rita Clancy, LCSW, is the director of adult services at Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. Her columns appear regularly in J.’s Seniors sections. This article was co-written with Jean Tokarek, a certified geriatric care manager at JFCS East Bay. Have questions about your aging loved one? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (510) 558-7800 ext. 257.