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What Makes Some Happy in Their Older Years and Others Not So Much

Let’s talk about the togetherness factor.


(Editor’s note: This content is sponsored by grandPad.)

I’ve learned a lot about how to live well and make the most of each day, not just in later years but now. Working with older people holds up a mirror to my own life. If you can picture the way you want to age, you’ll be much more likely to go down that path.

I don’t think it’s simply favorable circumstances or good fortune that makes some people more content than others. I regularly encounter individuals who’ve endured significant hardships and loss — such as the death of a spouse, illness or even abuse — but remain resilient and hopeful. Others have enjoyed all the trappings of worldly success but remain unfulfilled.

The Secret to Happiness

By seeking your own comfort and your own happiness, you often end up less so. That’s not a new idea, but now there’s growing research that shows people who are generous live longer, have fewer diseases and are happier.

Wisdom, generosity, gratitude — these areas are linked to a healthier, longer life and lower incidence of depression. Perhaps if we work to increase these strengths when we’re young, we won’t feel so alone when we get to the end of life.

Psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman found six virtues that are common to happy people: wisdom, courage, love, justice, temperance and transcendence.

Each of these virtues is a big construct but can be broken down into strengths such as intellectual curiosity, empathy and generosity. These strengths can be intentionally fostered. It’s about giving your time — about being truly interested in others — that makes you more interesting.

Gratitude, which enables people to transcend their difficulties, also can be nurtured. Write down what you’re thankful for in a daily journal. It’s been shown to increase generosity, compassion and life satisfaction. And everyone can find something good about their lives.

Accepting decline and death is key to appreciating the time we have and living a full life. Despite all the CrossFit and crosswords we do, there’s going to be change. Things are going to fail. We want to live the best life, we want to age well, but it isn’t as though we can avoid death — our likelihood of mortality: 100 percent — on that we are all together.

Connecting With Each Other

Those are some of the individual factors of a good life. Now let’s talk about the togetherness factor.

The scientific community is abuzz with the health detriments of isolation. Brigham Young University researchers found isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. What’s more, there is a 64 percent increase in risk of dementia for those who are isolated and lonely — defined as wanting more interaction than we currently have.

Humans have a physiological need to connect, much like we need to eat and sleep. Given both the geographic and digital divide between us and our kids and grandkids, technology can be helpful, but it can also be a royal pain in the rear.

I am in love with a company called grandPad that engineered out all the frustrations of technology so I can connect to family and friends headache-free. It’s a device that looks like a tablet but comes with unlimited wifi, no passwords, video calls, phone calls, email, loving human support, wireless charging, 30 million songs, games — the works. I’ve seen such improvement in the lives of the older adults I work with that I joined the company as their chief gerontologist.

To have a happy old age, cultivate virtues and new and old friendships. They’re what last. Our fundamental self is neither our body nor our brain. As we grow older, we become more of who we authentically are — that which doesn’t die.

By Kerry Burnight
Kerry Burnight, Ph.D., served 19 years as a professor of Geriatric Medicine at UC Irvine School of Medicine. She was the founder of the nation's first  Elder Abuse Forensic Center. She currently serves as chief gerontologist with grandPad. Her mission is to improve the autonomy and joy of older adults.

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