I recently viewed the Disney-Pixar movie Inside/Out with my six year-old nephew. It’s the story of a little girl named Riley and her dynamic inner world of feelings an personality. The film is an interesting, albeit elementary, illustration of human psychology. It does, however, explore the nagging question of how much of our psychology, including how we feel, is pre-ordained and how much of it is constructed over time. Of course the answer is both but the film’s supposition is that feelings, including happiness, are mostly an inside out phenomenon. Though, if you look closer, the upheaval of emotions at the center of Riley’s story is the result of life-altering changes to her environment: she’s forced to relocate from the Midwest to San Francisco and leave the social ties and activities that were primary sources of joy. Now queue anger.
Senior Isolation and Loneliness
The social loss and subsequent sadness and anger that Riley experienced as a result of her move may similarly plague the lives of older adults. Social support has been shown to have as much effect on life expectancy as smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and regular physical activity. The Harvard School of Public Health and its 80-year study of adult development hypothesized that social isolation may create a chronically stressful condition to which the individual responds by aging faster. In fact, Elderly people who live alone, have no friends, or have poor relationships with their children are 60% more likely to develop dementia than those with satisfying social contact (Wilson et al., 2014) I could go on but I think you get the picture.
Social Connection and Happiness
Now for the good news! It turns out that happiness, a direct descendent of social connection, is a significant source of health in older age. In a seminal study of very happy people, Diener and Seligman (2002) sought out the happiest 10% among us and found that one variable distinguished that happiest from everybody else: the correlation between happiness and social support was 0.7; research findings are considered significant when they hit 0.3. A study conducted by Danner and associates (2001) reviewed the journal entries of 170 Sisters of Notre Dame. Ninety-percent of those with happy entries lived to be over 85; only 34% of those with unhappy entries lived that long. In another study that looked at the correlation between happiness and cognition, authors found that participants who were primed to either feel amusement or contentment experienced an increase in processing speed and memory recall in contrast to the control group (Master et al., 1979). It turns out that happiness does a body good!
Senior Communities: Age and Happiness
Older adult clients and community members frequently ask me what they can do to live happier more fulfilled lives; lives that can be negatively impacted by the persistent loss of people and physical function in older age. There are several potential solutions but I invite the reader to consider taking specific actions to cultivate happiness from the outside in. Studies continue to make evident the importance of a happiness regimen – spending more time on social, physical, and cognitive activities that make us feel good. Note the word regimen. Happiness requires intentionality and purpose. In his popular book The Happiness Advantage, Shaun Achor suggested individuals focus on one or two happiness behaviors for 20-30 minutes each day for 21 days. Happiness behaviors might include meditation, conscious acts of kindness, exercising a signature strength, and finding something to look forward to. A website aptly titled The Pursuit of Happiness list the 7 habits of happy people, including – you guessed it – relationships. But happiness is not solely for the extroverted. Gratitude, spiritual engagement, physical exercise, and acts of kindness are all pathways to happiness. The question is, what path are you able and motivated to take?
Depression in the Elderly
Some of us know the power of depression and its ability to deplete our motivation self-esteem. If you feel as if you need support in cultivating happiness in your life and/or managing feelings of sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, or anger, please reach out to somebody you trust. A clergy member, counselor, social worker, nurse, psychologist, or physician may be sources of support. You may also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).