Why it Pays to Be Happy

You’ll get more out of life if you go through it with a smile

Illustration: Ryan Todd
“Satisfaction with relationships is the strongest predictor of happiness we have,” says Meik Wiking.

A major health scare was just what 48-year-old Kaye Newton needed to kickstart her transformation into a happier person. Before her illness, Newton, an author who lives in Nashville, was a self-described hypochondriac, always worrying about what pitfalls might be lurking in her future. But once she faced actual adversity, she learned how to change her perspective.

“Surgery helped me realize that worrying about my health doesn’t protect me from illness or prepare me for an operation,” Newton says. “I worry less now. I’m happier, and I consciously pay more attention to what is going on right now.” Her book, Incision Decisions, deals with remaining positive after surgery.

The longer you live, the more likely you are to become a happier person. Countless research studies have shown that over a person’s lifespan, happiness inhabits a U-shaped curve: We’re happiest during childhood and old age. During early adulthood, happiness levels steadily decrease, bottoming out in our mid-40s. By age 50, our happiness levels are on the rise once again.

The dip on the happiness curve is understandable, given the stress and significant life changes that take place during our 20s, 30s, and 40s: Working long hours. Establishing a career. Getting married. Raising small children. Socking away money for the future. But what about the boost on the happiness curve? After living life for 45 or 50 years, the experience that we’ve gained helps us to put things in perspective.

“By the time we have lived six decades or more, most have seen that life has as many downs as ups,” says Lisa F. Carver, an adjunct professor in the sociology department at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “The optimism of youth, which can reflect a magical type of thinking that success in life is inevitable, is replaced by the reality that things aren’t always good. However, there is also the understanding that good can come from bad.

“Learning to put life events in perspective can help you become happier as you age. And it pays to be happy: You’ll see benefits in your relationships, your work, your health, your attitude, and other aspects of your life.

Happiness & Relationships
Do you have friends or relatives whom you can confide in? If you do, you’re automatically happier than people who have no one to turn to for advice or companionship.

“Satisfaction with relationships is the strongest predictor of happiness we have,” says Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. “It comes up in happiness data all the time. Loneliness is one of the biggest challenges in the U.S. and also Europe and many other regions.”

Research shows that people who are married or who live with their partners tend to be happier than unattached people, simply because they’re less likely to be lonely.“People who have someone to count on in times of trouble are happier than people who don’t,” says happiness researcher John Helliwell, an advisor to the Happiness Research Institute and professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

“People who are married are more likely to have someone to count on than someone who isn’t married.”Helliwell’s research has found that marriage gives a long-term boost to happiness, to the point where the midlife dip toward unhappiness isn’t as pronounced among married people. The happiest people of all are those who consider their spouses to be their best friends.

Helliwell’s research is the first to examine the intersection of marriage and friendship and its effects on happiness.

“Calling your spouse your best friend is another way of saying ‘I’ve got a pretty happy marriage,” Helliwell says. “It’s not surprising if you think about it that way. They are happy about being married.”

Carol Gee of Atlanta, Georgia, has been married to the same man for 44 years.

“I realize I am actually happy and not just staying in the relationship because we have invested so much time together,” Gee says. “I don’t believe in not being happy.”

Happiness & Work
Researchers have studied job traits that lead to happiness and greater life satisfaction. Most people prefer a good work-life balance above all else.

“Variety and learning new things are important, but not as important as work-life balance,” says Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, associate professor of economics and strategy at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School. “If you feel that your job is preventing you from giving time to your family or partner, or if you worry about work problems even when you’re not working, or if you’re too tired after work to enjoy things, that has a massive effect on well-being.”

Retirement, as expected, enhances happiness in most adults. “This is due to two things,” De Neve says. “One is related to being able to do more, because the work-life balance shifts more to life. There’s more time for leisure. The other item is that people start adapting their expectations, which may have been overly high when you started out. You accept the outcome of your life.”

Illustration: Ryan Todd
“Optimistic older adults have the ability to cope with the curve balls of life,” says Lisa Carver. “They are resilient.”

Happiness & Health
Live long enough and you’ll likely experience illness or disability. But with the right attitude, these setbacks won’t affect your happiness levels.

“We have learned from our study participants that aging with illness and loss are challenges that brought new insights and appreciation of life,” Carver says.

Researchers in Italy found that people who have a positive perception of aging are happier than those that have a negative perception of aging.

“The positive perception of aging is not always correlated with having good health,” says geriatric specialist Ligia Dominguez at the University of Palermo, one of the study authors. “In our everyday clinical practice, we witness touching examples of this human ability—called resilience—in the guise of many older persons who independently, or with family and/or social support, maintain a good quality of life and declare feeling well, in spite of their health ailments.”

Happiness & Self-Care
Optimism and resilience can help you be happy into old age.

“The mechanism for the association between optimism and successful aging may very well be that optimistic older adults have the ability to cope with the curve balls of life,” Carver says. “They are resilient. They express life satisfaction despite upset plans and losses, because they have adapted their expectations and have accepted that events that may logically be considered negative can have positive outcomes.”

Life has taken Maggie Georgopoulos, 46, of Glasgow on a winding path through a number of jobs and continents, but she’s found happiness in the life that she’s created.

“My happiness comes from within me,” Georgopoulos says. “Because I have created a path to the life that I would like to live, I am okay when things go wrong. This is because I can see the good that will eventually come.”

Happiness Pointers for Life
If you’re hoping to remain happy until your final days, researchers recommend the following:
Adjust your attitude. You may not be able to control what happens to you, but you can control how you react.

“It is possible to develop the habit of seeing the positive side of things,” Dominguez says. “Many people complain of not being happy, but they also do nothing to change it.

”Learning to be more optimistic is a good first step.

“Start by recognizing negative thoughts as they arise, and question them,” Dominguez says. “For example: Is the situation really as bad as I think? Is there another way to approach it? What can I learn from this experience and apply it in the future?”

Interact differently with your spouse. After decades together, many husbands and wives become so familiar with one another, they’re not as kind to each other as they should be. This can lead to tension and unhappiness in a marriage, which affects daily happiness levels.

“It’s not fair to treat your spouse as toughly as you treat yourself,” Helliwell says. “Ask yourself: Is this the sort of behavior that I would use on a good friend? If you treat your spouse the way you treat your friend, it should involve less taking for granted and an increase of the positivity.”

Focus on what you have. If you’re more frail or less mobile than you were years ago, be thankful that you still have your wits about you, when so many others suffer from dementia and memory loss.

“That is an excellent example of a positive and optimistic person who appreciates what she has instead of concentrating on what she does not have,” Dominguez says. “Being grateful is part of cultivating a positive attitude. Looking for opportunities to savor the small pleasures of daily life, focusing on the positive aspects at that moment, without concentrating on the shadows of the past or bad thoughts that may upset the moment.”

Give back. After you retire, you’ll find more purpose in life and have more reasons to connect with others on a regular basis if you volunteer in your community.

“It’s beneficial to get more involved,” Wiking says, “especially if you’re at the stage when you’re leaving your work behind, so all of your identity isn’t attached to your profession.”

Find a cause or an organization that’s meaningful to you, then find out how you can help.

“I think people see volunteer work as good for other people, but we overlook the benefit we get out of it ourselves,” Wiking says. “It’s a way to make and meet new friends. It also, perhaps, helps people become more grateful for what they have, because some sorts of charity work expose you to how the other half lives.”

Popular Videos

Originally Published in Reminisce Extra