How to live life more fully

Lisa Fields 16 July 2022

Happiness experts and palliative-care doctors share their wellness and social strategies for how to live life to the full

When John Helliwell married his wife, Millie, 52 years ago, the two were already incredibly close.

“She may have been my best friend then, though it wasn’t something I thought about,” Helliwell says about their courtship, which gave way to a joyful and rewarding partnership that’s still going strong.

Decades into his marriage, Helliwell, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, not only started to think about happiness more, but to take a professional interest in the factors that influence our well-being.

In 2017, Helliwell’s research confirmed that marriage increases happiness, and people who think of their spouses as their best friends experience twice as much happiness as other married people.

Because Helliwell considers Millie his closest friend, it follows that their relationship boosted his happiness throughout the past half-century.

Helliwell isn’t the only academic to glean meaningful lessons from his own findings to live life more fully. Research also shows that happiness isn’t just about a fulfilling marriage.

Reader’s Digest spoke with several happiness experts to see what they’ve applied from their work to lead more satisfying lives.

Palliative-care physicians also shared insights they gained through helping patients plan for the future, bolstering important relationships, and appreciating each day—before it’s too late.

Here is some of their advice to incorporate into your own life.

Accept that age is just a number

Illustration of three people holding on to each other while sky divingCreditJeff Kulak. A passion for life can improve your health and wellbeing, which may help you to feel younger

Between 2002 and 2017, German researchers asked adults 40 and older to share their chronological age, then describe their perceived age.

People who felt younger than their actual ages experienced greater life satisfaction, with fewer negative emotions such as guilt and anger, leading to an overall increase in their sense of well-being.

Those who felt older experienced the opposite.

Health-related factors played a role. Perceived poor health, chronic illness, and physical limitations were associated with feeling older and a decreased sense of well-being.

“An individual with chronic health problems may feel an increased discrepancy between perceived age and chronological age over time,” says study author André Hajek, professor of interdisciplinary health-care epidemiology at the University of Hamburg.

"People who felt younger than their actual ages experienced greater life satisfaction"

“At the same time, this individual may lower their expectations of longevity, and so they may have problems enjoying their life. This may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading to marked decreases in future health because of bad lifestyle habits.”

Hajek, who is 38, says he identifies with his chronological age because he has two small children and recently became a professor, which is the typical age for such an appointment in Germany.

“This could change in the second half of my life, when family obligations with my kids may decrease,” Hajek says.

“Factors such as general self-efficacy, optimism or, particularly, passion in life—for your job, for example—can very positively affect your perceived age,” he continued.

“I try to live a life with true passion for science, which hopefully will play a role in keeping me young and satisfied.”

Embrace uncertainty

Palliative-care physicians often see patients with life-limiting diagnoses who don’t know how much time remains for them.

When these people accept uncertainty, then plan for possible scenarios while still living in the present, it helps improve their mental health and overall quality of life, according to a 2016 Scottish study.

Says study author Scott Murray, professor emeritus of the primary palliative care group at the University of Edinburgh: “People often ask, ‘What’s the prognosis?’ and what they’re saying is ‘How long have I got?’. But it’s actually something deeper: ‘What’s it going to be like for me?’”

He says that one way for patients to cope with their new reality is to check items off their “bucket list,” which can help them to focus on priorities and pursue achievable goals in the time they have left.

Murray’s familiarity with these kinds of conversations helped him when he was diagnosed with lung cancer seven years ago. “Having faced up to the fact you might die, then been at the final frontier and retreated, you’re going to get on living,” says Murray.

Although Murray’s results ended up being clear-cut and treatment was possible, he faced high levels of stress as he awaited that diagnosis. His research has shown that people often feel most anxious at this stage of the process and knowing that provided him some relief.

His research background and familiarity with palliative care and cancer diagnoses helped him approach his situation differently than many people do, which may in turn serve others well.

“Over the last 20 years, I’ve got this idea of ‘illness trajectory,’” Murray says. “People don’t just die; there is a progressive trajectory of events. And people should ask about that rather than just focus on the word ‘prognosis.’”

Express gratitude

Illustration of woman sitting and writing notes while sheets with smiley faces written on fly awayCredit: Jeff Kulak. Letting your loved ones know how grateful you are for their friendship is one effective way of nurturing your relationships

As people age, they’re more likely to experience health problems, cognitive decline, and the loss of loved ones, possibly compounding feelings of depression and loneliness.

But adults middle-aged and older who express gratitude are less likely to feel lonely, according to a 2019 Dutch study.

“Feelings of gratitude might lead to a broadened life perspective, more social behaviour, and more connectedness,” says study author Jennifer Reijnders, assistant professor of life­span psychology at the Open University in Heerlen, the Netherlands.

Reijnders has begun expressing gratitude more in her own life since she began researching its benefits. “Doing that has increased the connectedness and positive emotions I experience with some people and has diminished emotions like feeling alone,” she says.

Reijnders first noticed its power after expressing gratitude toward a friend in a birthday card. “She appreciated this very much, got really emotional, and started doing the same in her cards. It really intensified our connection and bonding. I now write this kind of note regularly to people.”

Foster virtual connections

If you can’t get together with friends because you live far apart, have mobility issues, or are wary of socialising in the wake of the pandemic, going online to maintain important relationships can help you remain close and improve your quality of life.

A 2021 British study found that older adults who used the internet to communicate with people during the pandemic had a higher quality of life and a reduced risk of low mood or depression than older adults who didn't communicate this way.

“Based on our study, it seems the best type of internet-based social contact is via email or video calls,” says study author Simon Evans, a lecturer in neuroscience at the University of Surrey’s school of psychology.

“This is a great way to help older adults feel more socially connected and socially included” (social media isn’t ideal, however, as it may provoke anxiety or feelings of missing out).

In recent years, Evans has consciously chosen to socialise with close friends through video calls and email, partly because of his findings.

“Online communication really helps me feel more in touch with the people who matter to me,” says Evans, who stayed in contact this way both before the pandemic and during it, when seeing each other in person became complicated.

“There’s no doubt that connecting online during lockdown periods allowed me to feel less cut off and more positive during difficult times.”

Document your healthcare wishes

In 2009, Germany enacted legislation that strengthened the power of advance directives, which are legal documents that allow people to specify the type of medical care they’d like, or would refuse, if they can’t make healthcare decisions for themselves.

In the decade following that legislation, these directives grew in popularity and usage. A 2021 German study out of Berlin suggested that the number of people with life-limiting diagnoses who used advance directives may have almost tripled from 2009 to 2019.

Advance directives help you communicate your wishes to your physicians, and the documents help ease decision-making burdens on relatives.

Knowing you’ll prevent loved ones from guessing your healthcare wishes during a stressful time may positively affect your well-being now, speculates study author Dr Jan Graw, a physician in the department of anesthesiology and intensive care medicine at Charité University Medicine Berlin.

Dr Graw's work prompted him to analyse scenarios where people may lose their capacity to make healthcare decisions. It also inspired him to think beyond advance directives.

“I would consider speaking with those close to you and discussing your personal beliefs—your attitudes related to life and death—and identifying potential future surrogate decision-makers,” he says.

Being prepared for possible stressful situations, he adds, can contribute to well-being.

Forgive others

Illustation of hands in shape of heart framing a blonde boy with glasses Credit: Jeff Kulak. Practicing forgiveness can deepen your friendships and help you go easy on yourself

Older adults who are more forgiving are less likely to experience depression, according to research published in 2019, possibly because forgiveness helps them experience greater emotional and physical well-being, as well as improved life satisfaction.

“Later in your life, you tend to look back at things that happened with you—actions that you took, decisions that you made, relationships that have broken, pain that you suffered,” says study author Jessie Dezutter, a senior lecturer in psychology and educational sciences at KU Leuven in Belgium.

“Forgiveness is a really important tool to find a bit of peace of mind so that you can wrap things up in a constructive and positive way and be OK both with specific mistakes or faults that you made or that others made towards you."

"Accepting that we are all human with our own faults and mistakes can bring a sense of relief"

Forgiveness doesn’t require reconciliation. You can forgive in your heart without telling the person concerned. This is helpful if someone has died, if the person you’re forgiving was abusive, or if a relationship has run its course.

Dezutter used this technique with an old friend. “The painful situations became so extreme that I decided forgiveness was necessary but that continuing to invest in the relationship wasn’t wise,” she says.

“It’s not so much forgetting about the relationship as it is taking a more distant position,” continues Dezutter. “Accepting that we are all human with our own faults and mistakes can bring a sense of relief. It can also open up new opportunities to engage further in relationships and in friendships.”

Tie up loose ends

As a palliative-care physician who treated hospice patients for many years, Dr Ira Byock helps people with life-limiting diagnoses find closure through meaningful conversation. And his lessons can be applied to anyone who wants to live a happier life—starting right now.

Imagine, he says, that you were in a car accident and knew you were about to die. What would be the things that you wished you had said to your loved ones while you had the chance?

“There are only four things we really need to say to people: ‘Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. And I love you,’” says Dr Byock, the California-based author of The Four Things That Matter Most. “So, why wait to say these things?”

For his part, Dr Byock relishes the way he feels after apologising, forgiving, and sharing gratitude with, or expressing feelings of love toward, the important people in his life.

“When nothing critically important is left unsaid between two people who care about each other, the quality of the relationship changes,” Byock says. “You’re more aware of the intrinsic value of the relationship, which for me, defines celebration.”

Mending and nurturing relationships helps to increase happiness because people value friends and relatives more than possessions.

“This is as close to universally true as almost anything I know about human beings. When you really get down to what matters most, it’s not things. It’s always other people,” Byock says.

“The exercise here, as we age, is to keep asking ourselves, ‘What really matters most?’”

Read more: A history of happiness

Read more: Letting go of limiting beliefs

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