What the elderly can teach us about living happier lives
Several years ago I researched and wrote a book on positive ageing. And probably not all that surprisingly, I learned a lot about what’s possible as we age and notably, how we can all live active, happy and fulfilling lives well into what have traditionally been considered our latter years.
Most of the variables that contributed to positive ageing were, admittedly, reasonably obvious. Those who were healthier and happier tended to exercise more, eat a more nutritious diet, have more positive and optimistic attitudes about life and without a doubt, they were more connected within their communities and had better quality relationships with family and friends.
At the same time, however, there were several factors that were less obvious; and in some cases, slightly surprising.
Nostalgia, for example, has often been considered a negative activity; focusing on the past has been viewed by many as something that could produce unhelpful and distressing emotions and more so, hold someone back from living their best possible lives.
But as a result of some fascinating research, attitudes are changing; the past may well be a way to a positive future.
One of the leading researchers in this area, Dr. Constantine Sedikides from the University of Southampton, has published widely on this topic and in short, his work has shown that nostalgia can counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous and more tolerant. Couples even feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories.
More recently, and building on this and similar research, Robert Cialdini – who authored the hugely successful book Influence and who’s currently professor emeritus at Arizona State University – urges in his latest book that at any age, we work to combine the exhilaration of youth with the older person’s ability to appreciate it.
In other words: start paying attention to the positive aspects of your life.
Surprise, surprise – those people who focus more of their attention, more often, on positive factors in their lives are happier and more satisfied with life!
The good news is that this is a relatively simple strategy we can all integrate into our lives on a daily basis. And if this sounds like something you’d like to have a go at these simple strategies and feel free to add more or post your suggestions in the comments section below:
- Be more mindful of the little, pleasurable moments in your life and take advantage of any opportunity you get to savour these beautiful experiences (e.g. really enjoy that cup of tea/coffee, consciously be present during and appreciate those conversations with friends/loved ones etc.)
- At the end of each day write down (at least) three things that have gone well; at least three things upon which you can look back with fond memories
- Reflect upon those issues or problems that are troubling you and try to consider anything positive that has, or might come from them (e.g. anything you might learn, how it might make you better or stronger or wiser etc.)
- On a regular basis, make time to look back over the notes you’ve made and/or at some photos of an enjoyable event (e.g. a holiday, your wedding, a birthday etc.) and be mindful of the positive emotions you experienced then, and now as you positively reminisce
It’s important to note that the suggestions I’m making are not about adopting an unrealistically positive attitude to life, nor are they about ignoring real problems. Rather, they’re about mindfully noticing pleasurable and satisfying experiences you might otherwise ignore or not fully appreciate.
In doing so, youth need not be wasted on the young. Instead, the young, and in fact anyone of any age, can benefit from the lessons of the aged and we can all, therefore, enjoy more happiness!
Do you enjoy reflecting on the past and remembering positive experiences? If so, I’d love to hear more in the comments section below!
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