Reality Check: Aged and Happy

If we are fortunate, we grow old.

If we are happy and satisfied as we grow old, we are very fortunate indeed.

What contributes to being happy as we grow older?

In recent columns, I’ve concentrated on practices suggested by Dr. Joel Wade in Mastering Happiness. He discusses happy, healthy aging with reference to George Vaillant’s book, Aging Well.

Vaillant concluded from extensive studies that seven factors might just make a difference between being “happy-well” rather than “sad-sick” in later life.

Here’s the list of seven. Are there any surprises?

  1. Don’t abuse alcohol.
  2. Don’t smoke.
  3. Have a stable marriage.
  4. Keep a healthy weight.
  5. Get some exercise.
  6. Develop an adaptive coping style.
  7. Get more education.

Did you notice that at least to some degree, the factors are within our control?

The physical health factors are consistent with accepted good advice. The other factors highlight that we need more than physical health to be happy in our agedness!

For example, choice theory recognizes that we need at least some love and sense of belonging. One good relationship—a stable marriage—can go a long way toward fulfilling that need.

Choice theory also recognizes the connection of learning to fun. So, whether or not you engage in formal education, keeping the fun of learning in your life contributes to your happiness.

This leaves us with the most fascinating factor of all: an “adaptive coping style.” What in the world is an adaptive coping style?

Well, to recognize that we need a “coping style” is to recognize the reality that things happen in life with which we need to cope!

It’s extremely unlikely that we’ll travel through life unscathed by any sort of difficulty. Will we be happy? Or unhappy? Apparently, the difference depends on the coping methods we choose.

An adaptive style is one that makes the best of our reality; that “makes lemons into lemonade.”

Part of this coping style is the choice to think before acting; to forgo immediate fleeting pleasure for long-term satisfaction. If you’ve ever chosen to pay an extra mortgage payment rather than go on vacation, chose to stay in and study rather than go out and party, or said, “Thanks, but I’m going to the gym instead of eating cheesecake,” you know what that means.

Relationships matter, too. One of the sad realities of aging is that we lose our friends, particularly our old friends. One coping method worth considering is finding ways to engage with younger people.

An aspect that I found particularly encouraging is “we can change.” If you have been operating with the belief that your personality was formed in childhood and you are stuck with it, take heart!

If your personality suits you, that’s great. But what if you’d rather be a little different? Maybe a little more assertive, more positive, less sensitive, whatever.

No matter your stage of life, you have input into who you are. You can make your life better. You can continue to become wiser as well as older.

According to Vaillant, it’s easier to be more mature when we are “not hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or drunk.” That fits any age, and while we may not have perfect control, we have a lot of control over those states.

Finally, there was a suggestion to develop a sense of humour, particularly about ourselves. That can be difficult to do. Just ask me.

What is your coping style?

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