Using rates of depression, suicide, employment, divorce, and volunteerism, the research site Wallethub this month announced 2018’s “Happiest States.” While the U.S. continues to drop in international happiness rankings (currently at 18), Idaho — at least compared to other states — ranks sixth in the nation.
Happiness is an elusive concept, or better said, a multilayered one. It’s a collection of moments — a laugh with a friend, an inspiring sunset. It sometimes comes in tides — a new relationship, a family birth, or better job.
As decades pass, happiness becomes something different, simpler. Those other layers still carry joy, but underneath is a current everyone seems to seek: A sort of peaceful routine, a secure pattern in daily life that sustains health and prevailing mood. The older we get, the less we embrace ripples.
Harvard University researchers conducted a landmark study spanning five decades, following 800 people of different social, educational, and career backgrounds from youth to old age. The “Study of Adult Development” (published in a 2002 book, “Aging Well”) combined three sample studies, each representing the world’s longest in their categories.
Overall, the researchers found that six primary factors predict happiness later in life, as well as longevity and good health. Some we can’t control, but the good news is that most are within our power to change, if needed.
1. Smoking and alcohol. Unsurprisingly the top two heath predictors. For men, smoking was 10 times more prevalent among the “prematurely dead” than among the “happy-well.” Beyond the physical, alcohol was also connected to poor relationships, fewer social supports, and other problems.
2. Education. The more, the better. More education correlated with healthier habits, more income, etc. But here’s a twist: Harvard vs. unheard-of-college made no difference, health- and happiness-wise. Learning generally is often correlated with better health and life quality. At any stage in life, cheap or free opportunities abound, such as art, language, or community college non-credit classes and local library programs.
3. A happy childhood. We can’t erase the past, but there is good news: The study found that what goes right better predicts the future than what goes wrong. How much we were loved (and whether we knew it) mattered more than social class or poverty. How well we coped with those tough years of adolescence also predicted later happiness. Even if none of that was good, the study suggests it’s not too late; a good marriage at age 50 predicted positive aging at 80. Later love from a supportive partner, relative or friend was enough for some to heal old wounds, resulting in likelier happiness and longevity.
4. Relationships. Everyone needs love. The study found those who aged most successfully both gave and received joy from others, and felt grateful for it. This factor was a greater predictor of happiness than money or intelligence. Having positive relationship connections (friends or family) was as important as emotional maturity. As other studies have confirmed, this contributes to good physical health.
5. Coping skills. Bad coping behaviors, such as pouting, negativity, and blaming others, may scratch an itch but wreak havoc on long-term health (with physical consequences of stress), relationships, and happiness. When life’s inevitable problems occurred, “mature defenses” were commonly exhibited by the “happy-wells,” and all but absent in the “sad-sicks.” The latter were far more likely to blame others, adopt denial, be passive-aggressive, act out, or retreat into fantasy — all maladaptive approaches associated with poor outcomes.
What helped? Altruism and compassion, suppressing and redirecting unpleasant thoughts (easier with practice), and — can’t emphasize this enough — humor. Staying busy or doing something that makes you feel good, patience, lemons-to-lemonade, do unto others, don’t take yourself too seriously... Apparently, there’s wisdom in some of that old Victorian morality. Dwelling on oneself, some might say, is a form of narcissism.
6. Generosity. The Dalai Lama said that to be happy, one must practice compassion; this study’s authors agree. Not only does generosity in thought and act shift focus away from our own problems, it builds connections — those relationships and positive feedback tied to happiness and longevity. Data indicate that after hitting our 30s, the need for achievement declines, while the need for community and affiliation increases. In all three samples, men and women aged 50-plus were three to six times as likely to be among the happy-well group if they gave often to others — whether personally or through charity, church, or community groups.
The education category was correlated with better diet and exercise. How about good cholesterol, genetics, or other factors — don’t they matter? Of course, but perhaps without these six, other factors are less effective.
Conspicuously absent from this list are big bank accounts, Olympic medals (or Pulitzer Prizes), and expensive toys.
“Whether we live to a vigorous old age lies not so much in our stars or our genes as in ourselves.” – George E. Vaillant, M.D., author of “Aging Well” and director of the Harvard study
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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Contact her at Sholeh @cdapress.com.