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Instead of Wishing for Happiness, Here's How You Can Really Make It Happen

You, too, can stop yearning for what’s missing in your life.

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illustration of woman holding a tray with happy, colorful cookies
Valero Doval
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My parents never used the word “happiness.” They grew up in the Great Depression, and their concerns centered on making a living and sending three children to college. I yearned to be a writer, yet my father strongly urged me to become an executive secretary. Security, stability and pensions were more important than loving your chosen career.

I didn’t listen, sacrificing my parents’ values for what I believed would bring me personal satisfaction. Many members of my boomer generation placed high value on achieving not only success but happiness along the way. We learned that happiness is complicated and does not run in a straight line.

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony.” Novelist George Sand, one of the 19th century’s most popular writers, had a different take: “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.” They’re both right. New studies have revealed surprising results about what makes us joyful in the second half of our lives. Happiness cannot be wished for, but we have some control over it as we get older.

About half the population gets more content after age 65, while the other half goes in the opposite direction. “There is a classic finding that happiness goes down in midlife, then goes back up and is stable as a shelf from 70 until the end of life,” Arthur C. Brooks told me in an interview. Brooks is the author of From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life as well as the “happiness columnist” at The Atlantic.        

Scholars have never written about this before, and what’s shocking, Brooks says, “is that the lower branch tends to be high achievers early in life. They tend to be most disappointed in their lives at 80. It’s hard to live up to high expectations.” He calls this the striver’s curse.

It’s futile to mourn that your biggest successes are behind you. More than ever, Brooks observes, you now have the wisdom to share information and to know which questions are worth answering.

When we’re young, ambition drives our professional achievements. “After midlife, we shift our priorities away from ambition and towards deepening our connection with the people and activities that matter most to us,” Jonathan Rauch writes in the Guardian. Author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Rauch emphasizes that enjoying new activities and concerns deepens our lives, adding new meaning. After midlife our values change and we focus more on caring for others.

How can you join the ranks of the 50 percent of people who feel happier after age 65? “Get off the wheel of money, power, pleasure and pain—which is what the world tells you,” Brooks advises. “Everyone needs a happiness 401(k) plan.”

There are four parts: faith, family, friends and work. “Seriously invest in your family,” Brooks says. “Have real friends, not deal friends. Do serious volunteer or community work that’s serving other people.” The more you invest, the happier you’ll be, he adds. Like anything else worthwhile, you have to work at it.

Start by listening to your doctors, who emphasize the importance of diet, exercise, stopping smoking, limiting alcohol consumption and maintaining a healthy weight. But a healthy lifestyle is only part of the happiness picture.

Add the following:        

Lifelong learning
Education makes minds agile as they age. Acquire a new skill or hobby; read thought-provoking books; learn a new language.        

Coping skills
Discover them in therapy, in spiritual practices or through meditation. These will be useful to lower stress levels when life feels out of control.        

Foster long-term personal relationships
“Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care, too,” Robert Waldinger, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, says in his TED Talk, “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons From the Longest Study on Happiness.” After age 60, we reprioritize and value social connections, friendships and giving back to the community.

“With age, we get better at savoring the people and things that matter most,” Rauch told me in an email. “Aging equips us to be happier and kinder. Old age can be the most satisfying period of life.”

One tool we already have that can fuel positive thoughts and even joy is gratitude, a practice used in mindful meditation and backed by science. Make time to thank the people who have made your life better, richer, more joyful.

Brooks endorses keeping a gratitude journal. “Once a week, make a list of five things you’re most grateful for. Every day think about it for five minutes. Update it once a week—whatever comes to mind, additions or substitutions. Within 10 weeks you should be 10 percent happier.”

Essentially, you’re retraining your brain, which is hard-wired on uncertainty and threats for survival. Your gratitude journal can express appreciation for the smallest things, like a blooming tree in your yard or a song you love on Spotify. Identifying what you’re grateful for, in this moment, can stop you from yearning for what’s missing in your life.

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