Happy old age, here I come

Good health permitting, of course.  But, especially as I just turned 50, yeah, I’ll admit to thinking about “getting” old more lately.  Anyway, I loved this Arthur Brooks article “The Seven Habits That Lead to Happiness in Old Age” that sure suggests to me that I on track for a health old age.  Of course, my guess is that a generally happy disposition is probably a big factor in all of this, and I’ve got that covered.  But, here’s the things you can actually do

Using data from the Harvard study, two researchers showed in 2001 that we can control seven big investment decisions pretty directly: smoking, drinking, body weight, exercise, emotional resilience, education, and relationships. Here’s what you can do about each of them today to make sure your accounts are as full as possible when you reach your later years:

  1. Don’t smoke—or if you already smoke, quit now. You might not succeed on your first try, but the earlier you start the quitting process, the more smoke-free years you can invest in your happiness account.
  2. Watch your drinking. Alcohol abuse is strongly correlated with smoking in the Harvard study, but plenty of other research shows that even by itself, it is one of the most powerful predictors of winding up sad-sick. If you have any indication of problem drinking in your life, get help now. If you have drinking problems in your family, do not take your chances: Keep that switch turned off. Although forgoing alcohol can be difficult, you’ll never be sorry you made this decision.
  3. Maintain a healthy body weight. Eat a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and moderate serving sizes, but avoid yo-yo diets or intense restrictions that you can’t maintain over the long run.
  4. Prioritize movement in your life by scheduling time for it every day and sticking to it. Arguably the single best, time-tested way to do this is by walking daily.
  5. Practice your coping mechanisms now. The earlier you can find healthy ways to deal with life’s inevitable distresses, the more prepared you’ll be if ill luck strikes in your 80s. This means working consciously—perhaps with assistance from spiritual practices or even therapy—to avoid excessive rumination, unhealthy emotional reactions, or avoidance behavior.
  6. Keep learning. More education leads to a more active mind in old age, and that means a longer, happier life. That doesn’t mean that you need to go to Harvard; you simply need to engage in lifelong, purposive learning. For example, that can mean reading serious nonfiction as part of a routine to learn more about new subjects.
  7. Do the work to cultivate stable, long-term relationships now. For most people, this includes a steady marriage, but other relationships with family, friends, and partners can fit in this category as well. The point is to find people with whom you can grow, whom you can count on, no matter what comes your way.

The best way to maximize your chances of happiness in your 70s is to pursue all seven of these goals with fervor, sort of like balancing your 401(k). But if you can choose only one to pour your heart into, let it be the last. According to the Harvard study, the single most important trait of happy-well elders is healthy relationships. As Robert Waldinger, who currently directs the study, told me in an email, “Well-being can be built—and the best building blocks are good, warm relationships.”

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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