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4 Ways to Be Happier

Practical steps to improve your outlook.

By Alice Bradley

Does the proverbial glass look half empty? Or maybe your rose-colored glasses are a little tarnished? 

Looking on the bright side is hard at times. But keeping a positive outlook has real benefits for you and your health. According to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, evidence is growing that a happy and engaged life is not only the result of good health but also contributes to your overall wellness. 

So, what can we do to improve our outlook? For starters, just keep on aging. “As we age past our 50s, we seem to have cognitive changes that help us respond more to positive things and less to negative things,” says Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. “As my father once said, ‘I’m no longer having five-dollar reactions to five-cent provocations.”

There are also practical ways to develop a better perspective. Here are a few ideas—plus the science to back them up.

4 Tips to Improve Happiness

Woman smiling with her journal and pen in hand

1. Start a gratitude journal.

“Gratitude is a consistent theme among people who are happier,” says Sophia Chang, MD, MPH, internist, and Chief Clinical Informatics Officer at Clover Health. 

There’s plenty of research to back up that assertion: In one study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, participants (all aged 60 and over) were asked to keep a gratitude journal for just two weeks. Every day, they wrote down three things that they felt grateful for. “Significant increases in flourishing” were evident—even 30 days after the exercise was completed. 

Focusing on what is going well seems to be a key to happiness, and as an older adult, you’ve already got an advantage: As Rauch points out, you’re actually more adept at focusing on the positive than someone younger. 

A man and a woman smiling while on a hike

2. Spend time in nature.

Forest bathing” is a practice that originated in Japan in 1982 when the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries coined the term (shinrin-yoku) in an attempt to get people outdoors more. 

“Bathing” is a figurative term here: The point is to indulge your senses in nature, not to go for a swim (unless you really want to, of course). 

You don’t need a forest to benefit, either. Spend time near a lake, the beach, or your favorite park. Just make sure your cell phone is stashed and you’re tuned in to the environment. Listen to the birds. Feel the breeze on your skin. Breathe in the scent of moss, dirt, or trees.

Twenty minutes a day is ideal, but whatever time you can spare is well worth it— even if that means a few minutes to gaze up at the trees on your block. 

A study of middle-aged and elderly adults published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health showed notable physiological and psychological changes after a single two-hour forest bathing session. “A short walk in the forest,” the study concluded, “can reduce tension, anger, fatigue, depression, confusion and anxiety, as well as improve positive emotion.” 

Grandfather and grandchild sitting at a table and playing with blocks

3. Tell your story.

 As we age, we gain wisdom and experiences. You have stories and they are worth sharing—whether with your children and grandchildren or members of your community. Personal storytelling can benefit others and you. 

“Storytelling is a way of reflecting on your life, which sometimes can impact how you look at your own life in the present,” explains Dr. Chang. 

“Just being able to share stories, whether funny or tragic, often casts a different appreciation for what you have today. Storytelling is also a way to reinforce your resilience and remind yourself of what you have been through.” 

Studies back up Dr. Chang’s assertion. The Journal of Ambient Intelligence and Smart Environments writes that “reminiscing and sharing life stories improve[s] self- esteem, mood, well-being, and enhances feelings of control and mastery over life as one ages.” 

Schedule a “storytelling” date with a loved one, or check out a service like StoryWorth. Once a week, StoryWorth emails questions such as “What fascinated you as a child?” or “What were some of your favorite courses in college?” You reply to the email with your answers, and at the end of the year, your stories are collected into a bound book. Learn more at storyworth.com.

Grandfather and grandchild smiling at each other at a pumpkin patch

4. Take care of someone (or something).

If you were a caretaker throughout your life—whether for family or through work— it’s hard to lose that role. But, says Dr. Chang, “your days as a caregiver don’t have to be over just because you’re older.” 

Look for ways to tap into that side of yourself. Consider getting a pet. “There is something about pets that calms people and gives them purpose—something to focus on outside themselves,” says Dr. Chang. 

Caring for a garden or house plants is another idea. Maybe you want to babysit your grandkids or volunteer at a local community center. 

According to research from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, older adults who spend as little as two hours per week volunteering could substantially lower their risk of early death, become more active, and improve their overall sense of well-being. Doing good, it turns out, really does help you feel good. 

This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of Clover Living magazine.

 

Published on 1/19/22

Photo credit: Getty