Happiness is big business. Hundreds of thousands of books in print, billions of dollars spent in pills and psychotherapy visits, and yet it remains temporary and for some elusive. Mental health is based on responding appropriately to experiences and, with life’s ups and downs, no sane person can be happy one hundred percent of the time. So we fluctuate. We are happy, and then we are unhappy and then find happiness again. We desire euphoria even though it does not have the stability of an inanimate object or the permanence of a tattoo.
Happiness research provides surprising data. Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert says a year after a person wins the lottery and a year after a person becomes paraplegic and loses functions of his/her legs, their happiness quota is the same. Remarkable. He says research has shown that most traumatic events longer than 3 months past will lose their impact and duration with a person. Gilbert theorizes that it is our being able to synthesize happiness and that we adjust to create happiness. For example, in his article, Aging Artists on the Creativity of Their Old Age, Dr. Martin Lindauer quotes a female artist in her 60s: “I can no longer make very large projects, but making things can be rewarding also. My energy has diminished somewhat, and a lot of time has been lost recovering from surgery, but I have never stopped working. I have a compulsion to make things of my own design. I am fortunate in that my mind seems to be in tact.” This woman uses her positive attitude consistently by recognizing the problem, creating positive acceptance (synthesizing happiness) and moving forward with gratitude. It also exemplifies her flexible and resilient approach to living.
So we have opportunity to be happy through a genuine experience (eg. winning the lottery) or a synthetically adjusted experience. However happiness comes to you, numerous studies have shown that those who profess to be happy tend to be optimistic, unencumbered by failure or the unknown, more social and experience greater control of their lives. When you are feeling good, life is easier and more fun; the sun is always shining. It’s easier to tackle projects and anticipate success because failure and fear are not on your dashboard. To explore and discover, to socialize with others, and to be the positive rudder in your life, is empowering and enabling. We view life through a different lens.
Psychologist Adam Anderson’s studies have shown the value of being happy in our approach to processing information around us "With positive mood, you actually get more access to things you would normally ignore," he says. "Instead of looking through a porthole, you have a landscape or panoramic view of the world."
This is excellent fodder for creativity which requires unique thinking to incorporate sometimes disparate elements for an optimal solution. When you are feeling upbeat you can embrace your world, respond positively to elements and are therefore more open and flexible to integrating them. The creative experience provides challenge as well as satisfaction and often a sense of exhilaration. You are the owner, the maker, the problem solver.
Susanne Matthiesen, M.B.A writes about Virginia Hall, an older artist who responds to Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice: "Do something every day that scares you." : A professional artist since her retirement, Hall continues to find exhilaration in the "scary" places of art. "I don't know of a better way to achieve a scary moment than to engage the creative process," she says.
Hall compares life to her artwork metaphysically. "It's somewhat of an illusion to think that you're making something. Oh, yes, you can paint a canvas or form a piece of clay. Ultimately, you're seeking a discovery," she says. "The point isn't the experience itself, but how it affects your sense of well-being and self-expression. Look within and around yourself."
Creativity is an integral part of aging well; it facilitates wellness through enhanced self esteem and socialization. Amy Gorman, author of Aging Artfully has profiled artists from 85 years to 107 years old and says “The women artists demonstrate for Boomers and the rest of us, that there are ways to promote healthy aging through a positive attitude.”
A positive attitude and a happy disposition are important in responding to the inherent hurdles of healthy aging. It is an active tool to combat everyday stress that can lead to depression and illness. Instead of seeing problems, contented people often perceive them as challenges to approach and overcome. Creativity is a tool that can fuel happiness and ward off depression. A study co-sponsored by George Washington University and the National Endowments for the Arts found that adults aged 65 and over who were continuously participating in arts programs were documented to have fewer doctors’ visits, require less medication and were less apt to be depressed.
We cannot simply turn on and off the happiness switch inside ourselves but we can strive to find happiness in our lives as much as possible. It feels great, promotes our creative thinking and benefits our health. The old adage “Don’t worry, be happy” is a great mantra for us all.
This article was originally published in the November-December 2010 issue of Aging Today, the bimonthly newspaper of the American Society on Aging, San Francisco, Calif.