How to Live Happily Ever After

Five middle-age friends laughing on a bench under a tree

Encore Transitions course asks (and answers) the proverbial question

What does it take to be happy: Good health? A winning attitude? An active social life? Participants of the May 11 Encore Transitions course, Aging Well, Being Well, learned that it’s a combination of all three. The day-long course, part of a four-part series hosted by the College of Continuing and Professional Studies' LearningLife program, featured talks on how a positive outlook, along with good nutrition and exercise, can keep us fit while we age.

A Positive Spin

Amy Gunty, a PhD candidate and researcher in the U’s College of Education and Human Development, started the day off talking about the benefits of positive emotions. Gunty shared research that suggests simply faking it, e.g., smiling through the pain, is not enough: the emotion has to be genuine. The most benefit is reaped, she said, through actively promoting positive emotions—such as pride, serenity, joy, and inspiration—by leveraging personal character strengths in a state of being called “flow.” Being in the flow (also referred to as “being in the zone”)  is when you’re so absorbed with what you’re doing, you forget to eat. Each of us have characteristics that, when applied to an activity or life in general, make us feel happy and engaged. Examples might be love of learning, honesty, humility, and leadership. Discover your personal character strengths by taking this free online test.

Keeping a gratitude journal for two weeks can extend a sense of happiness for up to a year

In addition to recognizing and applying our personal strengths, Gunty recommends writing gratitude letters and journals. According to Gunty, research indicates that the act of writing a letter to someone, thanking them for their positive impact on our life—whether deliverable or not—creates a sense of well-being that lasts for up to six months. And recording three things one is grateful for each day, including pleasant sensations and things that go well, encourages us to look for the positives. Keeping a gratitude journal for two weeks can extend a sense of happiness for up to a year.

Roots of Resilience

More insight on nurturing well-being came from Dr. Henry Emmons, a psychiatrist with Minneapolis-based Partners in Resilience, which promotes resilience in the face of stress-related conditions such as anxiety and depression. He said that research shows that anyone born since World War II is ten times likelier to suffer from depression, a risk factor that increases with age. He believes that junk-food diets and lack of exercise play a significant role in the phenomenon.

Dr. Emmons found that people who completed resilience training—a combination of nutrition, fitness, and mindfulness practices—were better able to manage depression, no matter their general disposition or genetic expression. He shared what he called the “roots of resilience” in three action steps: diet, exercise, and alignment with nature.

The roots of resilience are diet, exercise, and alignment with nature

Our diets, says Emmons, should follow food activist Michael Pollan’s “rules” for eating: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” In addition to eating a diet rich in vegetables in a variety of colors, Emmons recommends supplementing with B-complex vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium L-threonate (which can support restful sleep), and vitamin D3. He also said it’s important to support healthy gut bacteria by eating fermented foods such as kombucha and kimchi.

Exercise is the second activity crucial to resilience. Emmons said we need at least two-and-a-half hours of “low-level, rhythmic, and sustained” exercise weekly, 75 minutes of vigorous activity, and strength training twice a week. “Any movement of daily living that burns calories and tones muscles is good for the brain, memory, and mood.” Emmons said.

Aligning with nature—the third root of resilience—involves reducing stress levels through meditation, relaxation, social interaction, play, and sleep. In his research, Emmons found that six to seven hours of sleep each night is the sweet spot, and that it doesn’t have to be continuous. He said that it’s better to take something to help you sleep than to not sleep.

“Humans evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick,” Emmons said, borrowing a quote from Robert Sapolsky, another scientist who studies stress and its effects. If that’s true, we must also be smart enough to make ourselves well.

LearningLife is a program of the College of Continuing and Professional Studies. The program offers rich, meaningful experiences for those who seek knowledge, academic engagement, and personal development. For more information, visit our website.

 

My Aging Well Checklist:

  • Learn my strengths and apply them
  • Keep a gratitude journal
  • Write a thank you letter to someone who has made a positive impact on my life
  • Eat food, not too much, mostly plants
  • Take brain-supporting supplements
  • Get 2.5 hours of moderate exercise a week, along with some strength training
  • Reduce stress
  • Sleep 6–7 hours per day 
  • Be present
     

Disclaimer

You should consult your physician or other health care professional before starting this or any other fitness or nutrition program to determine whether it is right for your needs.