Happiness: it’s in your mind

In a letter written some 35 years ago and still cherished by her granddaughter today, 96-year-old Cate Christie wrote that she was surprised to feel satisfied in her old age and grateful for the good health she enjoyed. Strangely enough, she didn’t feel sick or hard done by, in spite of the fact that her “good health” kept her all but confined to home.

“My grandmother’s message of happiness gave me something to aim for,” says Catherine Peel, 58. “I work harder at staying healthy and being fit because I want to be enjoying my life at 96 someday, too.”

Christie’s contentment at a great age was probably no accident. Throughout her long life, she had faced challenges with equanimity and a positive attitude, traits that lead to enjoyable and healthier senior years, according to a remarkable study of adult development.

“There’s not much fun in living to old age if you’re unhappy,” concludes George E. Vaillant in Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development (Little, Brown & Company, 2002). Vaillant, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and director of the study, points out eoying old age actually has more to do with emotional intelligence than it does with intellectual capability or a well-heeled lifestyle. People who have loving relationships and who roll with life’s punches do better in later life than their more stressed-out peers.

Attitude is everything
Fil Fraser’s relaxed manner belies a lifetime of accomplishment. As Canada’s first black broadcaster, Fraser has produced radio shows, television and films, helped found the Banff Television Festival, served as chief commissioner of Alberta’s Human Rights Commission and as president and CEO of Vision TV. Currently, he’s an adjunct professor of communication studies at Athabasca University in Alberta, and his first book will be published this fall.

“What has made my life interesting and wonderful has been an apparent ability to re-invent myself in lots of different ways and do lots of different things and never limit myself to a particular career path or vocation – always ready to try something new,” says the Edmonton-based Fraser. “And here I am at 70, becoming a writer.

“I’ve always been quite certain of my own spirituality and had a firm understanding that life is a journey and the journey is the thing,” muses Fraser. “I’ve never had any fear of dying, which meant that I’ve always been able to see life as a trip from birth to death that was – and should be – an adventure.”

The health-happiness connection
Attitude is important, but a healthy body also contributes to feeling at ease with life. The Harvard study found that kicking a heavy smoking habit before age 50 was the most significant signpost pointing to good health in old age. But Vaillant also advises 50-plus smokers to butt out. “Smoking after 50 is much worse than no exercise, all the cellulite in the world and obesity,” he says. “None of those, even put together, are as bad for you as smoking.” The study also noted that people who abuse alcohol jeopardize their health but perhaps more significantly, they risk destroying the social relationships that sustain happiness in later life.

Physical activity can be a source of pleasure that also keeps depression at bay. “Clinical trials have found that if people go on an exercise program, it relieves depression at about the same rate as a fairly conventional antidepressant,” says Michael Stones, a psychology professor and director of the Northern Educational Centre for Aging and Health at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Physical activity is also fun. Dancing, brisk walking, running and cycling get the heart pumping, releasing brain chemicals called endorphins that cause a degree of euphoria. And a toned, capable body not only feels good, it can also be a source of great pride.

Love and friendship
Social contact is vital at any age. In fact, writes Vaillant, “It is not the bad things that happen to us that doom us. It is the good people who happen to us at any age that facilitate enjoyable old age.” Fortunately, there’s no best-before date limiting friendship to the young. The heart that continues to be open to new friends of any age will never be lonely, even when faced with the inevitable loss of contemporaries.

Working at a marriage not only pays off in the short term, Vaillant points out, it also contributes to happiness in later years. “What surprised me was that marriages deepen and become better between ages 70 and 80. It underscores why working on your marriage in your 40s and 50s is probably as useful as paying into your retirement account.”

Fraser ruefully acknowledges that it took him “a number of marriages and relationships” before finding a lasting and happy union but, he smiles, “These past 21 years with Gladys [Odegard] have been warm, wonderful and sustaining. We are at a time when we are so comfortable with each other that life is very nice.”

Defense against the blues
People tend to stop making an effort to do things they enjoy when they don’t have someone to share the experiences, adds Stones. In fact, to retain happiness, he says, “You need something to do that gives meaning to life, someone or something to love and something to look forward to.” Although he admits a pet can help, people who don’t have a human they can confide in are at greater risk of being unhappy than those who do. And single men are more vulnerable than women, he notes, since they’re more likely to be clinically depressed. “Females who are divorced or separated usually have a lifespan about four years less than females who are still married or who have become widowed,” he says. “In males, it’s about eight years less.”

A confidante can be the first line of defence against the blues. “Very often, as you talk your troubles through,” says Stones, “it becomes obvious how to put things right. Yet when you try and think it through on your own, it doesn’t always work because you can’t always put things in perspective.”