We put money in our 401(k)s. We take calcium supplements. We exercise. We hope these precautions will protect us as we age. But as we safeguard our money, bones and blood pressure, we forget to safeguard the one thing that can make a difference in the quality of our lives as we get older: our happiness.
Decades of positive psychology research has shown high levels of subjective well-being (the combination of overall life satisfaction and in-the-moment positive feelings) can translate into better physical health and a longer life. In a 2011 report from the International Association of Applied Psychology, Edward Diener, Ph.D., a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, analyzed over 160 relevant studies and found that while positive feelings did not improve outcomes for people with certain diseases such as cancer, the evidence that happiness leads to better health is “clear and compelling.”
Here’s how to start planning for your happy future:
1. Create meaning.
“Well-being is a state that occurs when we consistently—and to the best of our abilities—align our day-to-day actions with our values and goals,” says Beth Vagle, a certified life and ADHD coach in Denver. “As we get older, this alignment is even more crucial to our well-being. We need to feel that our lives are meaningful. And rather than search for meaning, we need to actively create it.” How do you create meaning? Take time to reflect on your values and then find activities that honor those values, Vagle says. If you love learning, for example, make a list of regular habits that would fulfill this value, such as reading before bed or visiting local museums.
2. Be specific.
The values and goals you identify in yourself will likely be broad—“I want to make art” or “I enjoy nature”—and that’s OK. But for them to be useful, you need to dig deeper. “Humans aren’t very good at following through with action on abstract ideas such as, ‘I want to help people,’ ” Vagle says. “So get specific. Which people? Help them do what? Where can you do it? That might turn into something like, ‘I want to help kids learn to read.’ ” From there, you can research literacy programs and get started.
3. Prevent regret.
A key question to ask ourselves when planning for happiness as we get older, Vagle says, is “What regrets don’t I want to have?” Write them down. Pick the one or two that feel most pressing. If you don’t want to regret not spending enough time with your children or grandchildren, for example, devise tangible steps you can take, such as playing cards with them every night or planning a special trip together.
4. Be a work in progress.
“People who see themselves as works in progress are often the happiest as they age,” Vagle says. “These people always seek ways to be a better version of themselves than they were yesterday. That effort is satisfying in itself, but it also has a ripple effect on those around them.” If you’re working on being a better listener, say, it’s likely your friendships or marriage will improve, creating what positive psychologists call an upward spiral of happiness.