Wellness and Aging


Thoughts on Happiness and Aging

by Sheldon Ornstein Ed.D, RN, LNHA

shelly head shot  
I wake each morning and silently recite the Hebrew blessing expressing thanks to G-D for restoring my soul for another day. I am speaking of course of the ModehAni prayer. Many of you, I am sure, know that feeling. I begin the day with a question: is this the start of a “happy day” and perhaps beyond? We struggle throughout our existence experiencing unrelieved stress, and significant losses and still look for ways to be content and productive with our lives. There is a growing body of research on the science of happiness that can be explained in terms of physiologic changes occurring with our bodies that we perceive as happiness. The research is based upon the relatively new field called positive psychology that focuses on three main areas: 1) positive emotions, 2) positive individual traits, and 3) positive institutions. According to a Pew Research Center study on social and demographic trends, only 34% of participants were “very happy,” half said they were “pretty happy,” and 15% said they were “not happy.” Society first became aware of the true meaning of the term happiness with the existence of the Declaration of Independence which states we have “a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Martin Seligman, a positive psychologist, differentiates however between what he cites as transitory happiness such as “the pleasure of a hot fudge sundae and enduring happiness as a deep satisfaction with how we live our lives.” Researchers have examined several sociological factors that contribute to the idea of happiness with surprising results (including age, religiousness and spirituality). —Age – Contrary to what one might think, people become happier with age. In a Gallup telephone survey of more than 340,000 people from ages 18 to 85, they found that happiness decreased gradually until 50 and then trended upward, while worrying after this age declined. —Religiousness and Spirituality – A Pew survey found that people who attended religious services weekly are more often happier than those who attend less often. The question researchers continue to ponder however is whether religion promotes happiness by reducing stress and provides meaning to one’s life, or is it that religious people often attend churches and synagogues where traditionally there is a support network. What is important is that it works, and that’s what matters. Rather than just generally pursuing happiness when it occurs, sociologists recommend a constructive engagement in behaviors that are associated with happiness. Here then are several behaviors to consider:
  • Connect Socially – The single most important strategy in creating an environment where happiness can thrive successfully is to spend quality time with family and friends. Connectivity is the watchword.
  • Keep a Positive Attitude – A Missouri-Columbia graduate by the name of Laura King reports that for four consecutive days she asked her subjects to spend twenty minutes writing a description of their best possible future selves and where they imagined the best possible future in several aspects of their lives. Those who were involved in the experiment claimed they had fewer physical problems to deal with and/or were able to handle them.
  • Being Grateful – Another component of a positive attitude is gratitude. In one study a group of adults were asked to write letters of gratitude and deliver each in person to someone who had been kind to them, but not thanked. Participants not only experienced increased happiness for an extended period of time, but “paid it forward” by caring for a family member, or a friend who needed a shoulder to lean on.
  • Tend to Your Body – You only have one body so it’s important to take care of it. The value of exercise has proven to improve mood and fight depression and contributes to the psychological benefits that come with exercise.
  • Be Kind to Your Mind – Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have studied the positive effects of meditation. Meditation has demonstrated results in physiological terms by lowering cortisol levels associated with stress, controlling cholesterol levels and lowering blood pressure readings. Even if you do not practice meditation, you can engage in the process of mindfulness. Living in the moment is easier said than done, but a beginning step is to enjoy the simple pleasures of life by focusing on what we take for granted.
A final thought on the concept of happiness; it takes time to change a behavior. Abide then by the quote that declares happiness as a journey, not a destination.