There are many “happiness” studies these days, looking at what makes us happy as we age, who is the happiest and where do happy people live.
To be truly happy, I believe we are looking at joy, the more deep-seated feeling. Joy seems more core, more inner, more lasting, whereas happiness can be a fleeting state of mind dependent on more external influences.
A grandchild gets married, we host a wonderful party, we get a surprise check in the mail – these are all happy, temporary things. Joy includes sadness, frustration, anger, etc., but at the center of ourselves, there is a joyful attitude that is deeper, and larger, than what day-to-day events bring.
Lewis Richmond, a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher, in his book “Aging as a Spiritual Practice,” offers five tools we can use to bring us that deep, abiding joy as we climb in our years.
Gratitude. If we start being conscious of all the good things in our lives, we can appreciate all that we have and shift into more joy. Some people keep a gratitude journal, or silently say thank you prayers daily. Breathe in the thanks. Generosity. It’s scientifically proven: Giving back and helping others makes us feel more content and joyful. Giving is a universal spiritual value taught by every religion, and this desire increases as we age. It’s part of our role as elders, being more community-minded, and it naturally lifts our spirits. There are many ways to give back, whether it is volunteering at a local nonprofit, helping a friend (and we all need more help these days) or being there for our family. This giving practice also helps us develop compassion, which softens us and brings us an awareness of the interconnectedness and suffering of all humanity. Reframing. Aging includes its share of reverses, losses and sorrows. Our attitude about them is the key. If we can’t run anymore, maybe we can swim. If we become ill, we can be compassionate with ourselves until we heal. Richmond developed a thought-line (or meditation) called Vertical Time that focuses on the positive aspects of the present, rather than regrets of the past or worries about the future. One breath at a time, one day at a time.Curiosity. Physical exercise, mental challenges and emotional engagement lift the spirit. Watch what you wonder about. Maybe the library has a book about it, or there’s a group to join with that focus, or the recreation center has that kind of class. After all, what are we waiting for to expand our horizons?Flexibility. I see myself getting more and more attached to my routines as I age. Things change, and some of these changes are irrevocable – our stamina, dying friends, family dynamics. With every reversal, there may be an opportunity, something we can do to bring some joy. Never give up. We must open to the goodness in everything to enjoy this old age to the very end.Adding to Richmond’s list, I would say that eating and sleeping well, learning how to deal with stress, relating to good friends and letting things unfold instead of trying to control so much will all help with feeling more joy in our lives.
Long lists, but we can treat old age as an opportunity for inner transformation to more joy. We deserve this. It’s our reward in the continuing adventures of life.
Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus to the other end of life and written a book, “The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game.” Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.