The Art of Aging HAPPY

Raeleen Mautner, Ph.D.

Raelen Mautner Ph.D.

According to the Pew Research Center there are 71.6 million baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) in the United States.Ageism is only one of elements we have to resist as we grow older. If you thought adolescence, young adulthood or trying to be a good parent was tough, just consider some of the “joys” older we must come to terms with as we get up there in years– not the least of which is social and professional “invisibility”. Many face the adversities of losing numerous loved ones, body image issues, health challenges, financial difficulties, and dwindling social lives.  Fortunately, the behavioral research reveals a clear path to becoming more resilient in the face of these common life assaults—happiness.  And yes, despite the reality of a genetic component to temperament, anyone can learn to increase their current level of happiness, and as a result, increase also their sense of well-being.

Categories: Mind

The nature-nurture controversy comes down approximately midway on the spectrum of the temperament we were born with versus what portion of a happy demeanor can be learned. We can often control the outcome depending on the effort we are willing to put in to enrich our own lives. Yes, that means YOU. YOU have the potential to take certain actions and think certain thoughts that can help your heart to feel lighter and bring more laughter into your life. Try looking at the joyful baby in this photo, and see if it doesn’t make you smile–even after a tough day. See what I mean?

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I don’t want to mislead you into thinking that a human being can be euphoric 24/7. That is not how the emotional landscape works; in fact, extreme prolonged emotions in either direction require professional help. Sometimes, however life is just hard. Sadness, anger, irritability, frustration, disgruntlement—these feelings are also part of human nature. Legitimate circumstances can trigger these reactions as can our own thoughts when we choose to dwell on painful situations beyond the point where we should have moved on.  Even while in the throes of your challenges, however,  will come a momentary glimpse of relief  to reassure you that  nothing lasts forever, and that you have the capacity to rise above your obstacles and get back to focusing on the joyful aspects of your life, like kid with a Good Humor popsicle. 

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Life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past few decades.  And while that is the good news; the bad news is that older adults often find themselves battling ageist stereotypes, body image issues, health concerns, financial worries, and the loss of important relationships, whether through death or estrangement. 

If you have ever taken on a major decluttering project, say a purging of your basement or attic, you were probably surprised at how much useless stuff you had accumulated over the years. The same is true of our lives in general as we age.  We unconsciously hold on to outdated patterns of thinking and behavior that no longer serve us in our mature years. By the time we reach the “boomer” age of 55, we have likely spent years raising a family, pleasing others,  worrying about loved ones, starving ourselves with fad diets, and dedicating most of our waking energy to getting ahead in our careers.  We go through decades on “auto-pilot”, never taking time to invest in our own wellbeing.  Now is the time to let go of  all of the “shoulds” that have beat us down in the past , and free up our energy in order to celebrate the possibilities for happiness that are available to us every day.  Why? Because happiness is the key to reclaiming the life we deserve. On this blog you will learn about the emotional and physical benefits of happiness, and some important steps you can take to attain it—not only in the future as it relates to attaining your goals, but also each and every day along the way. The time for happiness is NOW.

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When I was a little girl, happiness–and I mean total and complete happiness —was a Good Humor popsicle, a song on my transistor radio,  a snow day home from school, or the giant Hershey bar my grandmother would leave on the stairway for me on Fridays (her shopping day). I’ll bet you too, could name countless carefree pleasures that made you happy when you were a kid. 

As we go through adulthood our happy-go-lucky approach to life gradually fades beneath a stiff cocoon of responsibility, busyness, practicality, and “should-ing” all over ourselves, as the great Dr. Albert Ellis use to say.  The Third Age of life beckons us to break free of all of those constraints. We are more aware of our mortality than ever before, and in these precious years we deserve to make our lives special, feel stronger,  more confident, more resilient, and reap the benefits of happiness that are  available to us everywhere and every day. Happiness is not some elusive Holy Grail  that we must endlessly pursue with little hope of finding.  I want to reassure you that you can learn to love your life more whenever you wish to.  

We all feel amazing when we achieve a goal over time, but it is also important to be on the lookout for every nuance that makes you smile right now. Today for instance, I am loving the symphony of a rainstorm outside my window.  It gives me a sense of peace and joy to witness the sky wash the earth clean. What are the simple pleasures that you might savor today?

Happiness can be described as a state of bliss, elation, contentment, delight, elation, enjoyment, euphoria, exhilaration, glee, joy, pleasure, peace of mind, optimism, and well-being; to name only some of the many synonyms associated with it. A critical thing to keep in mind about happiness—for however you might define it for yourself– is that by its very nature it comes and goes, like all of our emotional states. The good news, is the more often you think, say, remember, or do what makes you feel positive, the more often you’ll be happy.  Pretty simple formula, when you consider how many times that’s held true in your own life. 

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Happiness is not an unwavering state of exhilaration. That kind of fantasy may happen in fairy tales, but since fairy tales come to an abrupt end just before the happily-ever-after part, we’ll never know. Keep in mind, there are also those who say that without a contrast of emotions we can’t really life a satisfying life.  If you dwell only on sadness day after day, your life becomes shallow and meaningless; but the same is true of unflappable perkiness. Neither state of extreme mood if prolonged is emotionally healthy, and both will prevent you from achieving your potential and discovering what is meaningful about your existence.  In either case, professional mental health workers can really help you to get unstuck, face and resolve your challenges, and take responsibility for living the kind of life you want to be living.

Time after time I hear people chant: “I just want to be happy!”  But it never dawns on them to define what happiness looks like to them, nor to plot out how to attain it as they would any other personal goal. Well happiness too, can become a reality, if given a straight-forward plan  and a willingness to invest the effort it takes to achieve it. 

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Think about how  it: Whenever you’ve purchased a big-ticket item, you planned out how much money you would need to put aside,  how long it would take for you to save that much,  where you would go to comparison-shop to get the best deal, and so forth.   Even if you never actually wrote out a detailed  plan, on some level the process was created and reviewed in your mind.  Same thing if you wanted to lose weight to get in better  physical shape, or  find someone to date, or go on vacation. We plan almost everything major thing we want to have, do, or achieve in life , except for what we say we want most—happiness.  

happiness plan serves as a commitment, an official declaration, a promise to yourself, to make your life rich and full  by design. The plan doesn’t have to be overwhelming.  It doesn’t have to be a master’s degree thesis; in fact, it doesn’t even have to be written out, although I would recommend that you do so.   Just start simple. List the things that make you feel good: Walking the dog through the woods on a fall afternoon. Going on a date night with your sweetheart. Having a few laughs with your best friend.  A picnic at the park with your grandchildren. Listening to your favorite music. A  special bakery confection with your afternoon cup of tea. 

Your list could be endless. You don’t have to write it out all at once; just add a new item to it whenever you catch yourself feeling happy. 

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A formal happiness plan-in addition to helping you live “with purpose”– also serves as a symbol that you have made happiness your priority.  No nonsense; that is what it takes to change the thoughts and behaviors that you want to change, in order be more content with each day you are gifted.

All you have to do is think of the many happy moments you have enjoyed throughout the years.  Think of all things past and present that brought (or bring) you satisfaction, joy, contentment, or pleasure. It’s not rocket science. When we revisit or reenact the circumstances that we know have made us happy, we enjoy more happiness. Think about how your life would change if you purposely re-engage with one or two of these happy thoughts , experiences, or actions each day. You will be surprised to discover how much  control you can have over your own mood and emotions. 

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