2010-01-08 / Columnists

Health & Harmony

Healthy Aging: The Happiness Principle
Commentary By Dr. Nancy Gahles

DR. NANCY GAHLES DR. NANCY GAHLES “It is only possible to live happily ever after on a day-to-day basis”

Margaret Bonnano

Aging, according to the old paradigm, implies a linear direction. An approach to decline and degeneration. Physiologic, organ-centric deterioration. This idea breeds anxiety and panic as we anticipate decrepitude, uselessness, dependency and loneliness.

The mind becomes engaged in at - tach ment to memories of what was and anticipation of what will happen in the future. That is what the mind does. It generates thoughts. As we watch and feel these thoughts resonate in our beings, we create a reality for ourselves based on these thoughts. The more we think them, the more they become our beliefs. The more we believe that aging for us will mean decrepitude and loneliness, the more we attract situations like that into our lives and eventually into our physical bodies themselves. It is not uncommon for me to hear patients tell me that their mother had cancer and so they will too. If, indeed, we can use our thoughts to create our reality, then we can use them to create positive, healthy outcomes apart from our “predestined,” negative ones.

Healthy aging can be transformed into simply healthy living. Healthy living, as we move forward in calendar years, requires constant awareness to the subtleties of our life. Awareness of our habits, our lifestyle, our relationships, our work life, our home life, our social life and our spiritual life. A heal thy person, no matter what chrono logical age, experiences a sense of self worth derived from a balanced relationship to all these segments of his or her life. Making the discreet changes that are necessary to maintain this equilibrium is the “stuff’ of everyday living.

Balancing work and play is the agenda of young adults as they create their career and pursue the goal of finding a life partner. Balancing work and relationship is the agenda of the middle age adult as they cultivate their career and build their family. Find - ing happiness when one is no longer engaged in their primary occupation or when their life partner is gone is the work of late adulthood. Too often, this is the time that the older adult is unable to find meaning in their lives. This leads to loneliness, dissatisfaction and ill health. One falls prey to the thoughts that life is over for them and this may precipitate a spiral into depression and chronic diseases.

Healthy aging must embrace a new paradigm of thinking. That is, that vital engagement in the process of life, the day-to-day living of life, enhances well being. Positive emotions predict health. Positive emotions are generated from simple acts of everyday living. The Smile Study by Keltner & Harker, 2001, demonstrates this beautifully. In this study, 141 high school women seniors in their yearbook were assessed for a genuine smile (Duchenne) vs. a put-on smile. They were interviewed at 27, 43, and 52 years of age. The re - sults were that those with the Duch - enne smile were more likely to be and to stay married; they had greater personal well being over a 30 year span and they had greater happiness. A simple smile was a predictor of personal well being over 30 years! That is healthy aging! When we smile at others, we engage them. They smile back. Relationships are created in this way. Relationships, vital engagement with others, is one of the most common sources of joy. “By far, the most common source of joy is relations with other people, especially in friendship and love,” Argyle, 1987. Argyle studied lei - sure, happiness and satisfaction and found that the greatest satisfaction was derived from dancing, voluntary work, charity work, musicals and religious groups. The older adult, in the leisure time of his/her life, can find happiness and well being by engaging in any of these activities.

Happiness as a predictor of health is strongly tied to Buddhist philosophy. The Dalai Lama sees happiness as strongly connected to compassion. In an interview with Cutler (Dalai Lama and Cutler, 1998) he says that people feeling happy are more likely to help others. Cultivating compassion and altruistic tendencies, which are innate to all human beings, creates a sense of self worth and contributes to happiness in everyday living. The Dalai Lama feels that this “right relationship”, through compassion to your fellow man, gives meaning and purpose to your life. Meaning and purpose are strong predictors of health and well being in the elder population. Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, through his direct experience, wrote the fam - ous book, Man’s Search for Meaning. In that book he talks about the pursuit of happiness through the struggle of surviving life’s challenges. His quote is an example of how to harness life and aging. “And throughout his ordeal, he could not help but see that, among those given a chance for survival, it was those who held on to a vision of the future — whether it be a significant task before them, or a return to their loved ones — that were most likely to survive their suffering.”

J.Haidt, The Happiness Hypotheses, 2006 says: “The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. Happiness is not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are with in you, such as coherence among parts and levels of your personality. Other conditions require relationships to things beyond you. Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and connection to something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.”

The happiness principle therefore rests on the premise that one experiences self worth, meaning and purpose in one’s life and is vitally engaged in relationship with others and in connection to something greater than themselves. The generation of positive emotions that emanate from a life lived in this manner perfuse the cells of the physical body and dictate optimal function. This is health. When we adopt the happiness principle over a lifetime, this is healthy aging. Making choices about eating nutritious and wholesome foods to enhance our health follows naturally, in right order, as does making choices about right relationships. As we think, so we are. Everyday living at optimal function is a choice. Directing our future through our present awareness is our right. Aging on a moment to moment basis is a fact that is imbued with freedom, pleasure and mirth. As you wish. As you desire. As you create your destiny. No panic, no fear, no anxiety. Only progression on the course that you have selected, envisioned and activated. The key to healthy aging is in your hands. And that is the gift of Life.

May The Blessings Be!

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