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The Happiness Equation

I recently turned a certain age. (Okay, I’m 50 — ish. Deal with it.) At first, I was stunned by the number, but after taking to my bed and summoning the restorative powers of Girl Scouts Thin Mints cookies, I realized something very important: I love my life and I wouldn’t return to my youth even if I could.
The teenage years, when who sat with whom in the cafeteria took on operatic proportions? My 20s, when I had no idea why I was put on this planet? Oh, please. Once was plenty. It may be the sugar rush talking, but give me a choice and I’ll take the present for $200, Alex.
The accepted perception is that life gets crummier as we age. That we turn into the crabby lady with 20 cats. The funny thing is, though, when I asked other women of a certain age how they felt about getting older, they all said the same thing: “My life is so much better now!” We’ve learned a little something about birthdays: With each one life becomes sweeter.
“People generally do get happier as they age,” says Laura Carstensen, PhD, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “There is a split between reality and perception. I call it the misery myth. People expect to become less happy as they grow older, yet our studies show that the frequency that one feels sad or angry declines, and when negative emotions do occur, they don’t last as long.”
Mind Over Misery
So what’s the reason for our bliss boost? The brain, for one thing. With a few years on it, the mind magically helps us diminish the negative. Over time the amygdala, the part of our brains that processes emotions, physically changes how it reacts to negative stimuli, explains Gene Cohen, MD, PhD, director of The Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University Medical Center.
We also live more in the present. When we’re younger and perceive our future as limitless, we pursue long-term goals — advancing our careers, saving for a house. When we’re older, however, we see our future coming up fast, so we focus more on goals we can fulfill now, notes Carstensen. And instant gratification equals instant joy.
The Fun Factor
Our active lifestyle also ups our happiness. We’re not sitting in rockers watching life pass by; we get out there. Take Mai-Liis Peacock, who, at 69, took getting out there to a whole new level. For many years, she wanted to go to Machu Picchu, but her nearest and dearest kept talking her out of it. “Two years ago, I realized that no one had the power to stop me,” says Peacock. “On a whim I invited along a woman whose blog I had read. The trip was everything I’d dreamed of.”
As Peacock proves, the isolated-senior stereotype just doesn’t hold up. A recent University of Chicago study found that older people remain active members of society. True, our social circle will constrict as friends and family pass away, but, as a whole, we tend not to withdraw because of that. 
“Not only are older Americans exceptionally adaptive to social loss, they may also be more proactive than younger adults in establishing ties to the community. In short, they appear to be more socially engaged,” says Benjamin Cornwell, PhD, assistant professor of sociology at Cornell University.
A New Attitude
Stupid stuff that may have ticked us off before doesn’t matter as much now. Chalk up another boon to midlife bliss. “You’ve accumulated life experiences that allow you to be more discriminating about where you’re going to put your energy,” says Cohen.
Carole Moore, 57, certainly doesn’t waste hers on the small stuff anymore. “I used to erupt with anger at the slightest provocation,” she admits. “Then I read something that stuck with me: Weigh things that make you mad. If it will still matter a year from now, then by all means, get angry. But if it won’t matter, then it’s not worth your time. It helped me put things into perspective. Now, if some bozo pulls into the parking space I was waiting for, so what? It’s only pavement. Why let it ruin my day?”
C’mon, Get Happy
If you want to ensure a spot on the joy bandwagon in the years ahead, be sure to do four key things now.
First, stay engaged. In his 20s, Mick Jagger famously said that he didn’t want to be singing “Satisfaction” in his 40s. Now he’s in his 60s, still rocking and strutting. Staying mentally and physically active ensures that you don’t end up in a boring, restrictive rut. “Exposing yourself to different activities and ideas now is planting a seed for the future,” says Cohen.
Second, keep your friends close. “Having tight social networks leads to healthful aging,” explains Karen Reivich, PhD, co-director of The University of Pennsylvania Resiliency Project at the Positive Psychology Center. That means nurturing various relationships, not just the ones with your family. Keep in mind that it’s not about the quantity but the quality. “Stick with relationships that feel authentic to you, and let go of empty, hollow ones,” advises Reivich.
Third, forget the stereotypes. That crotchety old cat lady may very well exist, but that doesn’t mean you’ll end up like her. Odds are, most of us won’t. But the stereotype is alive and well and doing real damage. In her research, Becca Levy, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, has found that older folks who are exposed to positive age stereotypes perform better physically and mentally than those exposed to negative ones.
Lastly, talk to yourself. Not in that crazy, time-for-your-meds way. Just some self-reflection to ask: What can I do today that will make me feel happy for many tomorrows to come? Then do it. And if all that doesn’t work — Thin Mint, anyone?   BETH LEVINE


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