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The 3 habits that can help boost your happiness as you age

Fortune Well July 11, 2023


The 3 habits that can help boost your happiness as you age

TV and movies have long portrayed older characters as grumpy and unhappy. But the reality is often very different.

“Everybody still dreads aging, and they are always surprised to learn that older people are the happiest people,” says Katharine Esty, Ph.D., a former psychotherapist and author of Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness.

A large body of research backs up the idea that people get happier as they age. Some of that has to do with emotional wisdom, according to Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

“As we age, our time horizons grow shorter and our goals change. When we recognize that we don’t have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly. We take less notice of trivial matters. We savor life. We’re more appreciative and more open to reconciliation. We invest in more emotionally important parts of life, and life gets better, so we’re happier day-to-day,” she says, in a TED Talk titled Older People Are Happier.

Experts say there are three key ways that older adults can cultivate happiness:


1. Choosing and fostering only “good relationships” 

The results of the longest study of human life point to the top factor that leads to happiness as we age: good relationships, says Dr. Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital and coauthor of The Good Life, which explores the findings from the 85-year study. And friendships are more important than family relationships for older adults, according to research from William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University. 

So what kind of friendships should we look for?

First, think about how you feel when you’re with your friends, Esty suggests. Do they energize you or drain you? Are you excited to spend time with them, or dreading it? Consider spending more or all your time with those people who make you feel good.

Also, “It’s best to have a bouquet of friends,” says Esty. “Some older, some younger, some the same age. There’s pleasure in sharing memories and music you liked with people your own age, but there’s also joy in learning and experiences with older and younger friends.”

Other considerations: Good relationships have mutuality, or a give and take, says Waldinger, as well as authenticity. “You don’t want to be in a situation where you have to hide major aspects of who you are.”

How many friends do you need? Some experts say five close friends is optimal, but that can be difficult as we get older. Esty suggests that we all need three different types of friends to really thrive:

  • Neighbors and others who provide practical help when we need it—driving us to the airport or picking up groceries when we’re sick, for example
  • Confidants whom we can talk honestly with about our feelings and explore what’s really going on
  • Friends who are fun to be with and whom we can do things with 


2. Ask for help 

We’ve all heard the adage, “It’s better to give than to receive.”  With friendships, both giving and receiving are important.

“The best relationships are two-way—where we give and receive help,” says Waldinger.

Yet even in our personal relationships, giving help is often easier than accepting help.

How to get started receiving help gracefully? Waldinger suggests saying, “Let’s do this together.” This is a way for the person asking to get their feet wet by asking for a little help, while still being a part of the process. For example, “Let’s make this meal together,” or “Let’s move this furniture together.”

For midlifers thinking about retirement, Esty suggests an activity that stems from her interviews of eightysomethings about what really matters—following your dreams.

“But many people aren’t certain what they want to do with their lives after retirement. They need to have a sense of purpose,” she says. “It works well to form a small group of friends who meet on a regular basis to discuss the issues in their lives and talk about their dreams for the future.”

And sometimes people can’t see their own strengths and interests, Esty says. Talking with friends may unearth ideas you had never even considered, such as writing a memoir or working on a political campaign.


3. Take on responsibility

I miss driving my kids to doctors’ appointments, making dinner for the whole family every night, and doing the laundry daily, said no parent, ever.

One of the perks of growing older is fewer personal responsibilities, and, ultimately, fewer or no work duties.


But there’s a fine line between too much responsibility and too little. One study of elderly nursing home residents showed that “more choices, more decision-making possibilities, and more responsibility raise the level of happiness in older people,” says Esty. The key, she says, is to only take on responsibilities that you enjoy and to say no to other requests.

For example, driving your kids to doctor appointments may have been a stressful activity when you were younger and working, but offering to pick up your grandkids from school once a week may be something you look forward to. If you enjoy an activity, like pickleball, you might find happiness in the responsibility of setting up a local pickleball tournament to benefit a charity.


The truth about happiness as we age

“We don’t want to sell the myth that if I do the ‘right thing,’ I’ll be happy all the time,” says Waldinger. Nobody is happy all the time, he says.

“The key is to build a foundation of well-being,” he says. “That way you’re more likely to be happy.”

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