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The Happiness Factor

smily faceNews flash:  An 87-year-old, white-haired grandma enjoys old age!   

Betty Schneider, featured on the PBS “Rethinking Happiness” series last week, finds that a full social schedule, taking classes and spending time with her children and grandchildren adds up to a “wonderful” life.

 The series reported on research debunking the myth that we become unhappier as we grow older.  Over the last two decades Dr. Laura Carstensen of Stanford University conducted a study that looked at how our emotional lives change as we age. Hundreds of volunteers, aged 18 to 94, carried pagers and responded multiple times over the course of a week to how they were feeling in terms of 19 different emotions. 

“The surprising result was that 70-year-olds experienced fewer negative emotions than 40-year-olds and 40-year-olds experienced fewer negative emotions than 20-year-olds,” said Dr. Carstensen on the PBS program. 

As people age and recognize their mortality, more and more choose to live in the moment, according to the study.  They see the “silver lining” in aging, particularly the freedom from the responsibilities and planning for the future. Of course, good health is a deciding factor. 

What does this have to do with m.21, other than we’re all getting older?  Perhaps this research can help us change the way we view the empty nest as just another negative sign of aging.  Perhaps the research can help us focus positively on the Way We Are instead of the Way We Were. Perhaps, as one psychologist on the PBS program suggested, we can focus more on our strengths instead of our weaknesses.

That psychologist, Dr. Martin Seligman, teaches at the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.  One of his “positive psychology” techniques is to ask people to write down three good things that happened every day and then three reasons why those events happened. Okay, maybe that sounds like a lot of writing. How about a spin-off to use with adult children?

We’ve all heard the saying: You’re only as happy as your least happy child.  Our children are some of those 20- and 40-somethings who are not quite as happy as the 70- somethings in the Stanford study. If they’re unhappy we usually know it because they are quick to tell us:  tough times at work, love or money problems, bad grades from a rotten professor! 

But what about when they are happy?  We hear about the big events in their lives but what about the mundane, everyday things that put smiles on their faces even for just a few moments?

In “Just Listen—What Made You Smile Today,” Huffington Post columnist Mark Goulston relates a strategy used by a lawyer friend who sends a daily text to his 19- and 22-year-old children asking that very question:   “What made you smile today? 

Although the children thought the idea was a little wacky at first they eventually got onboard with answers that ranged food in the fridge, to a good parking space with money in the meter, to a hot shower, to a funny message on Facebook

The result of writing down what made them happy?  Goulston wrote:

“that exchange helps put an additional smile on their faces as well as his [friend’s] own because a) it forces them to pause and remember something happy each day; b) by sending their answer to their dad, they know they are making him happy which underneath all their daily problems, they enjoy doing.”

That was one of the key messages of the Rethinking Happiness narrator, Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard University psychologist. Gilbert said that “Happiness spreads like a virus over our social networks.” So 70 or 40 or 20, share and enjoy happiness.

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