Let’s Talk: Happiness is the Key – First Installment


Everyone wants to be happy. It’s so obvious it may even seem trivial – but it is not. Happiness and the way we strive for it, how we achieve it, the way we experience it and the role it plays/can play in policy discussions are incredibly important and have yet to be fully explored.

Humans were pursuing “the good life” before Socrates was born and we will continue to reach for it indefinitely. Volumes of studies have been published on the subject and we would do well to pay attention to the conclusions they outline. The lessons learned in these studies have the potential to illuminate the way as we craft healthcare policy – specifically as we attempt to develop strategies for coping with some of the more difficult issues: dementia, ageism end-of-life care, assisted suicide.

One of the themes that constantly emerges in academic literature on healthy aging deals with the importance of being connected/engaged. Connection is crucial. Any study that has looked at relationships and socialization of older adults has drawn the same conclusion: these things are important to people of all ages but they are absolutely essential to us as we age. Remaining social, having positive relationships and engaging in activities (especially group activities that call on participants to be creative and that challenge them) – these are activities that deliver increasing mental and physical health dividends as we age.

This month, the group that has succeeded in doing all of the above in the most fun and creative way is a group of seniors who succeeded in creating a viral video (2 million hits and counting on YouTube). Two weeks ago 60 residents and staff members at Diana Isaac Retirement Village in Christchurch, New Zealand, took part in a joint video project.

Their video is a tribute to Pharrell Williams’ hit song, “Happy,” the residents portray the essence of the song by dancing their way through the halls and lawns of their retirement home. It is remarkably catchy and well done! Don’t take our word for it, have a look yourself:

“Happy” is the sort of song you would expect to find on a teenager’s playlist and perhaps that is exactly the point! The residents and staff, “combined all their considerable talents to come up with this tribute. The residents wanted to show their children and grandchildren just what they’re made of!”

What would you guess is the happiest age group?

The answer may surprise you. Researchers on the happiness of different age groups in the UK found that those over 60 are actually the happiest. This research shows that happiness levels are quite high for people in the twenties, then dip through the thirties and reach their lowest point in the mid-forties. But after 50, they start to rise, and continue rising through the sixties, when they become even higher than young people’s. Similarly, a recent world wide survey found that, as long as they are in fairly good health, 70-year-olds throughout the world are on average as happy and mentally healthy as 20-year-olds.

Andrew Oswald is one of the researchers that has published the most academic journal articles on the intersection of happiness and age – he refers to psychological well-being as being “U-Shaped” in life.

Similarly, Heather Urry of Tufts University and James Gross of Stanford University have both examined why older adults report feeling happier than younger cohorts. It seems like a paradox; although older adults are more likely to be physically weaker and socially less mobile than their younger cohorts, they report feeling happier.

What we are beginning to understand is that older adults are more adept at regulating their emotions. Older adults are more sensitized to interpreting happy moments in a situation. They are less concerned with negative events since they have more context and see these events as fleeting. This ability to manage emotions is further supported by research that shows that older people are better at predicting how a certain situation will make them feel. They manage their environment and how they respond to it better than their younger cohorts.

Older adults with dementia seem to follow these strategies as well. Despite what one might expect, older adults with dementia do not focus on the disease when talking about their happiness.

In all studies where people with mild cognitive impairment or early onset of dementia participated in some form of prescribed mental exercises roughly half of all participants reported some improvement in behavior and thinking. But regardless of whether they believed they had improved, nearly all participants reported feeling better after the exercises. Time after time it has been proven that being engaged in activity, especially activity accompanied by music, improves how you feel about yourself.

In contrast, such improvements in well-being have not been shown in studies looking at medication alone. Medication does not bring about happiness. It is the social interaction that improves how we feel and this applies to all people regardless of age or mental health status. Some people with dementia suffer from mood and personality changes, but their experience of happiness remains firmly grounded in their social relationships.

Harvard University’s Grant Study is largely acknowledged to be the greatest study to have looked at life-long happiness. It is impressive to say the least; this longitudinal study has lasted the better part of a century and is still on-going! It asked many questions but the most fundamental question asked if there is a formula that can be followed in order to lead a good life.

For 75 years, researchers at Harvard have been examining this question, following 268 men who entered college in the late 1930s through war, career, marriage and divorce, parenthood and grandparenthood, and old age. It has been described as one of the most comprehensive longitudinal studies in history. Its contents are said to carry “as much literature as science [and to] offer profound insight into the human condition.”

The Grant Study has many complex lessons to teach but some of the most important conclusions include the following:

  • All We Really Need IS Love:It may seem obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Love is key to a happy and fulfilling life. As the Study’s Director George Vaillant puts it, there are two pillars of happiness. “One is love,” he writes. “The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” Vaillant says that the study’s most important finding is that the only thing that matters in life is relationships. A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he wouldn’t be happy
  • REALLY – Relationships, Relationships, Relationships: “Joy is connection,” Vaillant says. “The more areas in your life you can make connection, the better.” The study found strong relationships to be the most significant predictors of life-long satisfaction. The lesson even extended to the work world: feeling connected to one’s work was far more important than making money or achieving traditional success. “The conclusion of the study, not in a medical but in a psychological sense, is that connection is the whole shooting match,” says Vaillant. As life goes on, connections become even more important.
  • Learning from Experience, Especially When it is Painful: The journey from immaturity to maturity, says Vaillant, is a sort of movement from narcissism to connection, and a big part of this shift has to do with the way we deal with challenges. The happiest people are those who can overcome tough circumstances and even learn from them. The secret is replacing narcissism, a single-minded focus on one’s own emotional oscillations and perceived problems, with mature coping defenses, Vaillant explains, citing Mother Teresa and Beethoven as examples. “Mother Teresa had a perfectly terrible childhood, and her inner spiritual life was very painful,” says Vaillant. “But she had a highly successful life by caring about other people. Creative expression is another way to productively deal with challenges and achieve meaning and well-being. “The secret of Beethoven being able to cope with misery through his art was when he wrote ‘Ode to Joy,'” says Vaillant. “Beethoven was able to make connection with his music.”

We should not underestimate the serious potential the study of happiness has to illuminate dark corners and help us achieve the paradigm shift we need to engage these emerging systemic policy issues. In this installment (Part 1) we examined the life-lessons to be learned from happiness scholarship and in the next installment (Part 2) we will look at the policy applications these lessons can have for older Canadians.

Don’t forget to read the next issue of CARP Action Online to catch the second instalment of this series!