En español | What makes us happy? Perhaps surprisingly, experts say that at least in part it's growing older. In fact, dozens of studies in the past 15 years suggest our happiness quotient curves upward after age 50 or so. A 2016 study by the Center on Healthy Aging at the University of California San Diego, for instance, showed that, as they age, people report higher levels of overall satisfaction, happiness and well-being, and lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress. Research from the Stanford Center on Longevity found that age correlates with what's called the “positivity effect,” where older people experience fewer negative emotions and look back on the past with more satisfaction and less sadness or regret.
It's nice to know the overall trends are on our side. Still, even the happiest among us need a little boost sometimes. And while you probably know the bottom-line advice on overall wellness — a good night's sleep, a balanced diet, exercise, social interaction — sometimes we need to connect the dots to target mood and outlook specifically.
To help, we consulted experts in the field of happiness for their best shortcuts to good feelings and contentment.
This tip, from psychologist Mary Pipher, author of Women Rowing North: Navigating Life's Currents and Flourishing as We Age, combines a touch of planning with a slight shift in your mind-set. Over your cup of coffee, or as you lie in bed each morning, ask yourself: “What do I want to insert into this day to make it good?” As Piper tells it, learning to do this routinely changed her daily life, helping her to prioritize fun: “A lot of people make a to-do list for their chores. If we are overscheduled and rushing, everything becomes one more chore. But you can sit down for a minute and ask yourself, ‘What do I really feel like doing in this moment?'” From there, she says, the trick is seizing the time to do what you want — ideally, as soon as possible. If you can call that friend or do a little gardening before the rest of your regular commitments intrude, so much the better.
Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-seller The Happiness Project, says that the morning itself can play a critical role in setting us up for a more positive outlook. Specifically, she recommends making a goal of getting out in the early a.m. sun (you're up anyway, right?). “That really helps with happiness,” she says. Many health reports back her up. Sunlight, along with fueling bone growth and strengthening the immune system, improves mood and focus by boosting serotonin levels in the body. It's also known to help the body produce the hormone melatonin on a schedule that better syncs with your natural circadian rhythm, helping you feel more alert during the day and fall asleep more easily after dark. (Critical for those for whom sound sleep has become a happiness stumbling block later in life.) A great way to absorb some early light is to take a short walk — if a dog comes along, so much the better. Studies show that canine friends lower depression and anxiety as well as blood pressure.
Speaking of walking, we all know by now that exercise is a certified mood booster. But if getting out there continues to be a tall order for you, start small — really small. “The difference between no exercise and a little bit of exercise is gigantic,” Rubin says. Try a five-minute walk, lifting hand weights, or balance on one foot and then the other a few times a day (a great move to maintain balance and prevent falls). And yes, if you can build from there, once exercise feels less overwhelming, all the better. Recent research shows that exercising bit by bit can add up to similar health benefits as continuous exercise of the same duration. For your mood in particular, movement encourages the production of endorphins, a stress-busting chemical that is released in your brain. In addition, when you move, you release a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which has a protective and reparative element and can act as a reset switch, allowing us to feel at ease and even euphoric after a workout.
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Rubin's latest book, Outer Order, Inner Calm, describes how letting go of excess belongings can bring peace of mind. Her shortcut here involves organizing just a drawer full of stuff a day to reap the benefits associated with clutter clearing (they include better sleep, improved relationships, even weight loss!). Such tidying up, she notes, brings special benefits for those of a certain age who feel “stuck” in a home with three bedrooms, a basement, attic, garage and pantry all often overly stocked. Clearing out a drawer at a time, and working up to a closet or two, ultimately leads to checking off rooms from your list. Doing so, Rubin says, brings “a tremendous sense of freedom. People feel lighter and less burdened with the weight of years.”
It's common wisdom now that connecting with others socially can offer a quick hit of happiness. A lack of strong social ties has been found to affect not just happiness but also health and longevity. If you feel short on such connections, sometimes looking back can give you a way forward. “Look for somebody in your life who got away,” suggests Rubin, “a neighbor who moved to a different part of town. Maybe you were always acquaintances but for whatever reason you never moved the relationship forward. Maybe you can reconnect with that person now — you already have something in common, you know that you like each other. You can pick up again rather than trying to forge a new relationship.” Setting a yearly time and place to meet up with friends who live farther away can also help you rekindle existing friendships.
Signing on to an existing group — perhaps at your church, synagogue or community center — can also offer both connection and the stability that's sometimes lacking with one-on-one friendships (where one person catching a cold can ruin your plans for an evening). And don't rule out starting a group of your own. “I'm a big fan of joining or starting groups because I think they're more stable than a bunch of one-off relationships,” Rubin says. “If you invite one friend, then your friend invites a friend, now you've met somebody new, and you are part of a social network.” Your group doesn't have to have a serious intent, either. As Rubin notes, you could play a card game, watch the same show every week, listen to podcasts, hang out at a dog park or just drink coffee together. Whatever the focus, being part of a group “is a good shortcut to feeling less lonely,” she says. “If you miss one week, you know you'll see them again."
If anxiety or negative thinking threatens your daily happiness, try meditation to literally clear your mind. Just a few minutes of these mental exercises have been shown to have significant benefits for both psychological and physical health. You can find a simple meditation to follow through books, classes, CDs — or a variety of apps. The popular app Headspace, for instance, offers brief guided meditations that ask you to narrow your focus to something as simple as the sensation of your breath as you exhale and inhale, or to observe how your brain throws out errant thoughts as a tranquil voice encourages you to move past them. You can also try this walking meditation from Headspace cofounder Andy Puddicombe.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 2, 2020. It has been updated with the AARP Top Tips video.
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