Most of us imagine young adulthood to be the peak of happiness and older adulthood to be the time for things to “go downhill.” Research tells us a different story however. It turns out that life satisfaction is like a U-Shaped Curve. We start off in childhood pretty happy, and then as we progress into adulthood, our happiness actually plummets in mid-life. This is often associated with work stress, striving, taking care of our parents and our children, and the challenges of marriage (and increasingly of divorce). Then, somewhere in mid-life - even for those without children - the happiness index rises again. Why?
Qualities of Old Age that Contribute to Happiness
Well, some theorize that there are things associated with older age that contribute to a better sense of well-being even as the body ages, such as:
- An increase in Self-Acceptance – the older we are, the less worried we are about perfecting ourselves. We have a tendency to hold a realistic view of our strengths and weaknesses and an attitude of acceptance toward any flaws. Instead of constant “self-improvement,” there is a tendency to relax into who we are.
- Understanding We Cannot Please Everyone – many of us strive to please spouses, bosses, our parents, our friends, etc. As we age, we realize the futility of pleasing everyone. I love the quote “I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time” (~Herbert Bayard Swope).
- Ability to Live in the Present – it seems we spend much of our adulthood either getting over a terrible childhood or worrying about the future. For older adults, living in the present is often easier. Things of the past have often been accepted and resolved and the future is no longer a far-off thing to ponder, look forward to, prepare for, or fear. Research is clear that those who live in the present are far happier than those who dwell in the past or the future.
- Not Taking Life for Granted – in our youth, it is so easy to make other things more important than our basic happiness and joy. We easily push aside our own joy for work, status, pleasing others, financial striving, etc. In older age, there is a tendency to recognize how short life really is and to not only be grateful for each day, but also for whatever current health we have.
- Wisdom – after many trials and life experiences, many older people have a view of life that includes the wisdom to know how to handle many obstacles. Lessons learned offer older adults more ease when faced with challenges – they have acquired some mastery and skill at coping.
Adopting the above skills and attitudes in old age can make the difference between a happy retirement and an unhappy one! Old age certainly comes with challenges like physical complaints for example. But, this is also a time to shine and use all those "terrible learning experiences" in life to your advantage!
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What About Physical Self-Care?
It is true that the healthier you are, the easier it is to be happy. Who wants bad knees and stiff joints or a chronic illness? So, one factor in happiness is to do everything possible to stay healthy. Here are the obvious things to do:
- Eat well
- Sleep Well
- Get Some Sun
These obvious lifelong habits promote well-being and happiness no matter what chronic diseases or other health problems you may have. But doing everything you can to keep your habits healthy also sends yourself the message that "you matter" – which boosts our sense of self-worth. So even if you still have stiff joints or more serious physical challenges, the simple action of taking care of yourself can boost mood even if it does not take away all your physical pain.
Just taking the time to do good things for yourself is a positive mood enhancer and treating our bodies well can help keep us in good spirits.
Activities to Achieve and Maintain Happiness in Old Age
Chemicals in the brain help keep our moods stable. The theory is that when these chemicals are out of balance, we can go into a state of depression. Sadly, many older people are simply prescribed medications to address these chemical imbalances without offering life-style changes that could be even better at addressing mood.
- Keep a Wholesome Routine: Depression can set in when the days just sort of melt into weeks without much structure. Having a general routine can help keep you engaged and active. It doesn’t have to be a rigid schedule – but rather a general way of creating structure and rhythm in your life.
- Controlling Sleep: Elderly people can get into poor sleep habits when napping takes the better part of a day and they find themselves unable to sleep at night. Getting into a good sleep routine can keep you mentally healthy.
- Setting Goals and Checking Them Off: Even if your goals are very small – like “walk outside for 10 minutes,” research shows that writing down your goals and then checking them off as you accomplish them can give you a sense of mastery of your life and accomplishment. These things boost our natural happiness.
- Get a Change of Scenery: Sometimes, we can feel like we are in a rut. Planning a trip to a nearby town and acting like a tourist, visiting all the interesting sites can be some simple way to just break up that routine we talked about above! Sometimes, a change of scenery or pace is what we need to reset and get ourselves feeling energized and motivated.
- The Obvious Stuff: Exercise and eating well. Yes, you hear about this all the time like a broken record because these things really are important and really do help! Eating regularly is especially important for seniors who live alone and may not have the built-in motivation of dining with others to eat regularly. Nutritional deficiencies can cause cognition and mood disturbances especially in the elderly. Talk with a doctor about a multi-vitamin to ensure proper nutrients. And exercise doesn’t have to be rigorous to be effective. A daily walk around the block done over time can improve stiffness, pain, and a positive mental outlook.
- Socializing: Being lonely stinks for everyone. Elders are no different. If you are the primary caregiver, you may want to consider asking other people to come and visit with your elderly relative. It would be even better if there were family and friends who would come on a regular basis. This routine of visiting can be a huge benefit to someone living alone especially as it also gives a person something to look forward to.
- Creating Atmosphere: Especially for homebound seniors or those with serious mobility issues, your surroundings can make a huge difference! What about cleaning, changing the room around periodically, soft lighting, music, scents? How can the environment be enhanced for comfort, joy, and happiness? Dull or cluttered surroundings can be depressing.
- Reminiscing: Get out those old family movies or photo albums. Often, this can really cheer a person who is feeling blue.
- Get Creative with Other Activities: Check here for ideas on movie night, summer activites, winter activities, and all year ideas to stay entertained and engaged.
We all want to be happy and joyful. For some, it is harder than others. But, one thing is certain and that is that if you keep doing what you are doing, you will keep getting the same results.
Therefore, one of the best things you can do today to contribute to happiness for yourself or someone you love is to ask yourself “what is one thing I could change for the better?” Often, it will be something mentioned in this article like attitude or exercise. But, sometimes, it is something very personal to you. Check out this list of possibilities for simply enjoying the little things to get your imagination rolling. Changing one thing can put everything on an upward path.
What About Depression?
Of course, if you or a loved one feel depressed a lot, it may be time to screen yourself for depression and tell your physician. Depression, unchecked, can lead to serious complications including medical problems.