Seven Secrets to Happiness

Are we happy yet? Happiness is more than a warm puppy – but a warm puppy can help, too. In recognition of International Day of Happiness, here are seven secrets to boost satisfaction in your life’s journey – and to make this year your happiest yet.

1 Take a beauty break
A death seems a strange starting point to learn about happiness, but after news reached me in a hotel room in Krakow, Poland, that my horse had died back home in Canada during the night, I learned that beauty has power to comfort and heal.

I wailed loudly, broken-hearted. Chaucer wasn’t just any horse to me. I’d bred him and helped him stand on his gangly legs for the first time 14 years earlier. He became a tall, elegant but challenging beauty that I rode about four times a week, working on dressage, a system that gradually develops a horse’s physique and rideability.

My tears barely contained, I headed for a sunny bench on the riverside below historic Wawel Royal Castle. Later, as I walked through public gardens in Krakow’s Old Town, the sweet scent wafting from blooming trees and shrubs insisted on my attention. Hungrily, I began to breathe in as much of it as I could, drinking in the light filtering through the trees and the fresh spring flowers along the path. Beauty in all its forms has always enchanted me, but the depth of comfort I felt at the time took me aback. I felt I had been given an invaluable gift. Of course, I mourned the loss of my special horse, but this moment in Krakow taught me to search for something beautiful when I need strength and have to refocus. I continue to find it in art, architecture, music and smiles – and especially in nature.

American biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, for this subconscious connection humans seek with other forms of life such as trees, flowers and wild animals. It seems to be universal. According to Frances E. (Ming) Kuo, author of a 2010 National Recreation and Park Association paper, city green spots encourage social ties and improve neighbourhoods. And they offer a three-for-one payoff if you have a dog. Like other pets, dogs provide companionship, a focus of affection and they need someone – you – to walk them. Twice-a-day outings mean you get exercise, a visit with Mother Nature and a daily opportunity to forge friendships with other dog owners.

2 Treasure relationships
He fell for Mary the second they met at university. “When she walked into the room, I absolutely knew she was a very special person. I remember the moment – even what she was wearing,” Dave Ross, 64, laughs. (He’d recall later that he’d actually noticed her a year earlier, a lovely frosh queen on the then Ryerson Institute of Technology float.)

He and my husband are lifelong friends and although we only see them once or twice a year, I love when we get together. It’s easy to feel happy around people who smile a lot. After 40 years of marriage, they seem to have found the key to a balanced relationship. “We’re not the ‘Yes, dear,’ types,” Dave cautions. “That’s a slippery slope. If one person dominates, over time, that is not going to work.”

We savour our wine as the Rosses prepare fresh produce from their weekly foray to the farmers market. Conversation shifts from little grandchildren to music and the pleasure of our new living spaces – theirs a garden condominium and ours, an addition. Differences of opinion don’t beget annoyance. “As long as it’s built around respect and actually listening to the other person, you can agree to disagree,” Dave says.

He and Mary, 62, have thought a lot about what makes their marriage strong, possibly because they’ve taken part in an annual marriage preparation course at Holy Family Parish in London, Ont., for about 20 years. Refreshing their Understanding Our Relationship presentation each year, listening to the other couples – including doctors who discuss sex – has them taking stock each year.

“The most valuable things in your life?” Dave asks, “Your health and your relationships, whether with your spouse, good friends or family. It’s all part of how you perceive yourself in the world and it’s a component of your personal happiness. “I’m certainly happy when I think of Mary!”

Love of a spouse, family, friends and often pets plays a major role in satisfaction with one’s life. Michael Stones, a professor of psychology, heads the Centre for Education and Research on Aging and Health and is also the director of the gerontology program at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University. He told me, “There are three things you need to retain happiness: someone or something to love; something to do that gives meaning to life; and something to look forward to.”

RELATED POST: Friends could be the key to happiness in midlife

3 Stay sociable
Rodine (Ronnie) Egan may demonstrate all three of Stones’ prerequisites. She lives alone since her husband, Willis, died 20 years ago but has a remarkably busy social life. She turned 90 last March, and more than 250 people showed up at her birthday party in Uxbridge, Ont. Perfectly coiffed and stylishly dressed, she works weekly at the hospital foundation’s used goods store and makes sandwiches for bingo organizers at the local Legion. There are seniors’ bus trips and occasional visits with family and interviews with high school students about her service as a chief petty officer in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS, or Wrens) in Halifax during the Second World War. Clearly, she thrives on this daily contact and her various roles. Wisely, her activities allow her to keep making new friends; her circle remains wide, even as sadly, her roster of lifelong friends shrinks. (Egan is also adored by the neighbours’ dog, who spends most days with her – and behaves better for her than his owners.)
There’s no better prescription for happiness than cultivating new friends and cherishing old ones and family members. We’re wired for social interaction – ultimately, the connection to other people becomes a framework for happiness.

4 Shoot for a star
Gerontologist Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University, distilled the wisdom of more than 1,400 people aged 70 to 100, in his 2011 book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans (Plume). Their resounding conclusion: Life is short. Do something you enjoy.
It’s a sentiment echoed during an on-camera interview for, by Canada’s favourite spaceman, Chris Hadfield, former commander of the International Space Station. “Wake up every morning with a list of things you want to do that make you feel good about yourself,” he stressed. Then you’ll be able to look at it at the end of the day, assess what you wanted to do and what you did well.

A belief system, different for each individual, gives astronauts strength for the extreme danger of space travel. “Most come back very much happy that their decisions, their choices, the things that are important in life are validated and correct,” he said. “Often, because of what you did to get there, you’re comfortable when you look inside yourself,” adding that few experience an epiphany in space. His trajectory to the command of the ISS, detailed in his recent book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Random House Canada), offers useful life lessons for the earthbound, delivered with Hadfield’s characteristic insight and charm.

The happiest people set attainable goals, so be realistic – you won’t be filling Hadfield’s recently vacated seat on the I.S.S. but you probably have a “someday” list of experiences or projects you plan to do – when? Choose the item that inspires you most and go for it!

And here’s a happy Hadfield message: don’t measure the success of your life by what happens at the end of all the effort you’ve made. “The real key is to find victory – and joy – in every single day and recognize that you can have a little victory that’s really important to you that nobody else need know about. That way, when the big ones come along, it puts them in perspective. It also gives you a long string of successes, not a long string of dog work and dissatisfaction,” he said. Roger that, Houston.

5 Give your head an inner scrub
The UN’s World Happiness Report 2013 points out that mental illness is the top influencer in personal happiness. An estimated 10 per cent of people on the planet suffer from depression or anxiety disorders – even the most admired and accomplished among us. Bravo for people such as the incomparable Clara Hughes, winner of multiple medals for Canada in summer and winter Olympics, who chooses to tell the story of her struggle with depression in order to diminish the stigma of mental illness and encourage people to look for help.

Depression sucks energy and hope so don’t expect to “snap out of it,” as a doctor once advised me. A sleep-deprived mother of two young children, I had been struggling to shake a heavy feeling of despondency. I ultimately found that a mental health professional does help you to get to the source of the illness without fear of burdening those closest to you. (And whatever your problem, it probably won’t be the first time they’ve heard it.)

Bereavement, health problems, diminishing finances because of job loss or retirement as well as loneliness can bring on depression in older people. (It’s not considered a normal part of aging any more than it is normal for younger folks.) The Canadian Psychological Association reports that 15 to 20 per cent of people 65 and older may suffer from depression. For those in long-term care residences, the numbers could hover from 30 to 50 per cent. This illness saps the inclination to move, causing swifter loss of muscle mass, and even slowing recovery from stroke and fractures.

And here’s one simple trick. Try smiling more and often. Even if you’re faking it. To have an effect, the exercise has to last from 15 to 30 seconds. It’s a technique that uses the mind-body connection to fool your mind into believing you are truly amused – and dare we suggest, happy? (The more realistic you can make it, the bigger the effect.) Just say, “Cheese!”

RELATED POST: theVisualMD: What is Depression?

6 Unlock the power of the future
Maintaining a healthy level of personal happiness in an institutional setting such as a nursing home can be difficult, but looking forward to programs such as a weekly group session of reminiscing can help, Michael Stones says. “Rather than being the patient in Room 5, suddenly she’s Mrs. Doris Smith whose husband was killed in the Second World War, who remarried and has five children of whom she’s very proud. It’s kind of a Mick Jagger syndrome – it gives a person a chance to share her story and to be the centre of attention and that’s very powerful and important.”

Something to hope for lifts us all, although our choices may be wider than those long-term care residents. For example, planning a vacation sends happiness levels higher, according to a paper in Applied Research in Quality of Life – and who cares if you fly overseas or simply bus to another city to watch a game?

And here’s an unexpected twist. We anticipate our busy lives won’t cough up enough time for us to spend on others, yet a 2012 psychological study undertaken by Philadelphia, Yale and Harvard universities concludes that volunteering not only creates a “helper’s high,” boosting well-being in volunteers, it also increases their perception that they have extra time to share.

7 Cultivate your talents
In an era before a measles vaccine, an eight-year-old Joan Folinsbee began drawing in her bedroom, darkened to protect her eyes. Now, at 87, she’s grateful for a lifetime immersed in art – a love affair, as she calls it in her book, Contraries: An Artist’s Life (Hillside Studio, Thornbury, Ont. 2013). “Art demands your full being, heart, soul, mind and body, and absorbs all other contradictions,” she writes. She channelled this talent into a career as an art teacher and artist when her marriage broke up at age 45. It nourished her when her son died unexpectedly. And perhaps those catastrophes ultimately enriched her art, pushing her down paths she might otherwise not chanced. Poet William Blake wrote, “Without contraries, there is no progression.” Folinsbee notes that even a painting needs a disruptive element to excite the viewer. “Blake seemed to be saying the same thing about life itself,” she adds. “Without contraries, there is no progression; without the irritant of the grain of sand, there is no pearl.” Indeed.

My paternal grandmother gave me something precious when I was 22. In a letter, she confessed that at 95, she was doing fine. “I’m satisfied in my old age, which I did not expect,” she wrote. “I am very thankful for all my good health.” This, in spite of having mobility issues that mostly confined her to the second floor of my aunt’s home in Sydney, N.S. Still, she enjoyed watching the comings and goings on the street below and keeping in touch with her many children and their families scattered across North America. I cherish that letter. It has freed me from anxiety about aging.

It seems she’s not alone in her reaction to getting old. Researchers at Florida State University College of Medicine recently confirmed that, “on average, people maintain or increase their sense of well-being as they get older.” Now that ought to make you happy.

Zoomer magazine, Dec/Jan Issue