On Being Happy

Today is a beautiful summer day. Finches flock at the top of the old pine, and my yellow lab rolls gleefully in the long grass. I feel good and strong, and I recognize the awesome luxury of having a moment to breathe and look around.  This is a kind of happiness – one of my favorites, but there are other kinds of happiness, too. As we grow older, the sources of happiness can change.

Psychologist have begun investigating ways to increase happiness instead of focusing on negative emotions like depression or anxiety.  One of the leading proponents of “positive psychology”, Martin Seligman, PhD, conducts research aimed at finding out what makes life worth living.  Seligman’s theory holds that well-being is made up of five factors:

  1. Positive emotions (actual feelings of pleasure, joy, and excitement);
  2. Engagement (active involvement in an activity or task);
  3. Positive relationships (interactions with those we love and who treat us with kindness and affection);
  4. Meaning (spiritual beliefs or philosophical concepts about the way our own lives fit into a larger picture);
  5. Accomplishment (setting goals and achieving them).

Your own happy experiences may be different mixtures of these five elements. For instance, an elder who takes up painting may find great enjoyment in the intense focus of applying wet paint to a canvas and in the achievement of a final product. Another elder may spend time caring for a grandchild, both growing that fond relationship, doing something meaningful, and feeling a sense of joy.

The amount of happiness a person feels is likely to change over his lifespan.  Generally, happiness is high for people in their 20’s, declines from ages 30 to 50, then increases again in senior years.  Perhaps it is the stress of establishing oneself in the world that makes those middle years so difficult. From building a career to raising a family, pressures can keep middle adults from enjoying their lives.  It is useful for elders to remember this: your adult children may need coaching about how to be happy!

Age can also bring a greater appreciation for the joy in “ordinary events”, perhaps like my little walk into the yard. For the “middle adults” 30 to 50, happiness is tied to milestones and unusual events – getting a good job, falling in love, having children. Although unusual accomplishments can also attend senior years, elders have a greater appreciation for the simple pleasures of being alive. Letting go of the youthful need to be in control of careers, families, and environments is one reason seniors, as a group, are generally happier than their middle-aged, adult children.

Elders contend with challenges, of course, like physical ailments, medical conditions, and financial worries, but a lifetime of experiences can steel a person against day-to-day concerns. To many of life’s problems, elders can say, “Been there, done that.”  Senior wisdom also tends to reduce social anxiety, like excessive worry over other people’s opinions.  Age can mellow people and teach emotional maturity. Many elders begin to find the dramatic, emotional highs and lows of youth to be a little silly. As one elder told me, “The kids get too caught up in things – it’s just a waste of perfectly good energy!”

For all these reasons, elders often maintain a more positive outlook about their lives than younger people.  One of the most important contributions an elder can make to his family and friends is sharing his ideas about how to be happy. Family and friends can support seniors by actively promoting conversations about positive memories and the “ordinary experiences” that comprise a happy life.