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THE GOOD LIFE: WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY?

The one thing all humans have in common is that each of us wants to be happy. Much more than a simple feel good factor, happiness has a huge effect on us mentally and physically.

What keeps us happy and healthy as we go through life? If you think it’s fame and fortune, you’re not alone – but, according to psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, you’re mistaken. As the director of a 75-year-old Harvard study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction.

Harvard’s Grant and Glueck study has tracked the physical and emotional wellbeing of two populations: 456 poor men growing up in Boston from 1939 onwards (the Grant Study), and 268 privileged male graduates from Harvard’s classes of 1939-1944 (the Glueck study). They have been studied across the entirety of their lives (there are 60 or so still alive today).

Due to the length of the research period, this has required multiple generations of researchers. Since before WWII, they’ve diligently taken blood samples, conducted brain scans, and scoured self-reported surveys, as well as regular face-to-face interviews, to compile the findings.

The conclusion? According to Waldinger, one thing surpasses all the rest in terms of importance:

“The clearest message that we get from this 75 year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

Specifically, the study demonstrates that having someone to rely on helps your nervous system relax, helps your brain stay healthier for longer, and reduces both emotional as well as physical pain.

The data is also very clear that those who feel lonely are more likely to see their physical and mental health decline earlier and die younger.

“It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship,” says Waldinger. “It’s the quality of the relationships that surround you that matters.”

What he means is this: It doesn’t matter whether you have a huge group of friends and go out every weekend, or if you’re in a supposedly “perfect” romantic relationship. It’s the quality of the relationships – how much depth exists within them; how safe you feel sharing with one another; the extent to which you can relax and be seen for who you truly are – that is the key. Perhaps it is a relationship where someone relies on you for help and support – helping you to feel valued in the community and in turn, giving a boost to your self-confidence and self-esteem. These are crucial as well.

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CULTIVATING CONTENTMENT

Even the best budgeters can face problems as returns on savings or pension investments fall, and day-to-day living costs increase. Living on a fixed income makes it more difficult to respond to the unforeseen. In fact, research published by ILC-UK and Age UK found that 3 in 10 older people are struggling to repay their outstanding debts. The research also found that older people who experienced problem debts were more likely to have a significantly reduced quality of life. Yet, 66 per cent of the population had not sought professional financial advice on retail investments, pensions or retirement.

FIVE STEPS TO MENTAL WELLBEING

If positive relationships are the foundation on which wellbeing and happiness is built, there are five things that can help us to strengthen ourselves, our existing relationships and develop new and exciting connections. Try thinking about being well as something you do, rather than something you are. The more you put in, the more you are likely to get out. The five steps are:

“Connect, be active, keep learning, give to others and be mindful”

We will be looking at each of these individually below. If you give them a try, you may feel happier, more positive and able to get the most from life. But it takes some effort on your part. As Sarah Stewart-Brown, professor of public health at the University of Warwick and a wellbeing expert, says: No-one can give wellbeing to you. It’s you who has to take action.

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1. CONNECT

Connect with the people around you – your family, friends, colleagues or ex-colleagues and neighbours. Spend time developing these relationships. Strengthen them. Remember, the more you put into them, the more you’ll reap the benefit.

There are lots of simple ways to build stronger and closer relationships. Here’s some easy-to-follow ideas:

  • If possible, take time each day to be with your family. This could include a fixed “family time”.
  • Arranging a day out with friends you haven’t seen for a while. Schedule to meet up at a Get Together activity or event perhaps.
  • Switch off the TV and play a game with the grandchildren, or just talk to them.
  • Make the effort to phone people sometimes – it’s all too easy to get into the habit of only ever texting, messaging or emailing people.
  • Speak to someone new today.
  • Have lunch with a colleague or ex-colleague.
  • Visit a friend or family member who needs support or company.
  • Volunteer at a local school, hospital or community group.
  • Make the most of technology – video chat apps like Skype and FaceTime are a great way of staying in touch with friends and family, particularly if you live far apart.

2. BE ACTIVE

You don’t have to go to the gym. Take a walk, go cycling or even better, join a walking or cycling group and meet new people while you exercise. Find an activity that you enjoy and make it a part of your life.

You may think that the mind and body are separate, but what you do with your body can have a powerful effect on your mental wellbeing. Physical activity can help people with mild depression. Evidence shows that it can also help protect people against anxiety.

There are some basic guidelines on the amount of physical activity you should aim to undertake. See the blue box at the bottom of the article for an exercise guide to help get you started.

3. KEEP LEARNING

Learning new skills can give you a sense of achievement and a new confidence. So why not sign up for that cooking course, start learning to play a musical instrument, or figure out how to fix your bike? Contact  Age UK Islington who can help you access courses, workshops and learning opportunities throughout the borough that may be of interest. From local history to sculpture, there are so many lifelong learning opportunities, you’ll be flexing your grey matter in no time. It’s also a great way to meet new people with similar interests and hobbies.

4. GIVE TO OTHERS

Even the smallest act can count, whether it’s a smile, a thank you or a kind word. Larger acts, such as volunteering at your local community centre, can improve your mental wellbeing and help you build new social networks.

Giving to others and co-operating with them can stimulate the reward areas in the brain, creating positive feelings. Helping and working with others can also give us a sense of purpose and feelings of self-worth. It also helps us strengthen our relationships and build new ones.

Speak to Age UK Islington about volunteering with us. We have a number of volunteering opportunities for community-spirited individuals and we’d love to hear from you.

5. BE MINDFUL

This may sound really “deep” and difficult, but it is deceptively simple really – it’s just something we forget to do because life has a habit of getting in the way. Basically, be more aware of the present moment, including your thoughts and feelings, your body and the world around you. Some people call this awareness “mindfulness”. It can positively change the way you feel about life and how you approach challenges.

It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment.

Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment. It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.

5 ways to wellbeing is a set of evidence based actions to improve personal wellbeing developed by the New Economics Foundation. For more info and advice visit www.nhs.uk.

 

BE ACTIVE

HAPPY FEET

Adults aged 65 or older who are generally fit and have no health conditions that limit their mobility should try to be active daily and should do:

  • at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity such as cycling or walking every week,

and

  • strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms)   

OR

  • 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity such as running or a game of singles tennis every week,

and

  • strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms)   

OR

  • a mix of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity every week. For example, two 30-minute runs plus 30 minutes of brisk walking equates to 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity,

and

  • strength exercises on two or more days a week that work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms)

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A rule of thumb is that one minute of vigorous activity provides the same health benefits as two minutes of moderate activity.

You should also try to break up long periods of sitting with light activity, as sedentary behaviour is now considered an independent risk factor for ill health, no matter how much exercise you do.

Older adults at risk of falls, such as people with weak legs, poor balance and some medical conditions, should do exercises to improve balance and co-ordination on at least two days a week. Examples include yoga, tai chi and dancing.

Source: NHS physical activity guidelines for older adults

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