If we are fortunate, we live long enough to grow old. If we are doubly fortunate, we live well enough to enjoy growing old. But, like so much else about being happy, this depends in part on our attitude. And our attitude could be what makes all the difference to whether or not ageing is a happy experience.
When does growing old start?
Is this when we physically age, or when we age mentally? Does it happen at 45 or at 85 years of age?
The jury is out on this, but as far as we are individually concerned, an element of choice remains—and choosing to take those steps that support an active and happy life are pretty much the same as at any other time of life.
"You don’t stop laughing when you grow old; you grow old when you stop laughing"
- George Bernard Shaw
At the end of the 19th century, the average life expectancy was around 40 years old. Today, it’s double that and so it’s worth planning how to make the best use of this extra time.
Firstly, reject those horrible stereotypes of age—don’t become a grumpy old man or woman. Savour the positives and seek out new pleasures, while expressing gratitude for the joy already in your life.
Inevitably there’s a degree of physical deterioration as we age, and this comes down partly to our genes (for example, we may have a genetic predisposition towards osteoarthritis) but we can support our physical health and reduce our risk of age-related illnesses by keeping active.
Regular exercise to support physical and mental health is important throughout our lives, so finding suitable ways to continue to exercise as we age is key.
Muscle tone can be improved at any age—so it’s never, ever too late to start or resume regular exercise—and this goes a long way to supporting our bones, ligaments, tendons and internal organs, reducing pain and keeping our posture strong.
"Breath is the power behind all things. Your breath doesn’t know how old you are; it doesn’t know what you can’t do. If I’m feeling puzzled or my mind is telling me that I’m not capable of something, I breathe in and know that good things will happen."
- Tao Porchon-Lynch, 94-year-old yoga instructor
Exercising our muscles also produces what John Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, calls ‘Miracle-Gro’ for the brain. BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, helps build neurotransmitters and their connections in the brain, along with mood-enhancing dopamine and serotonin.
When we exercise, our muscles produce a protein called IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor 1), which stimulates the production of BDNF in the brain. So, while keeping your body strong, the brain’s function is also stimulated: a win-win.
Take your pick—yoga for focus, flexibility and muscle strength; Pilates for core stability; walking for weight-bearing and bone density; cycling for muscle tone and balance; any exercise for companionship and fun!
As we age, we need fewer calories to maintain a healthy body weight, but we still need great nutrients to keep functioning well.
We require lots of good-quality protein from animal and vegetable sources, vitamins and minerals from a variety of fruit and vegetables every day, plus a little of what you fancy—in moderation, both dark chocolate and red wine have their benefits, too.
There has never been a better time to be curious, with a world at our fingertips—literally—from online resources. At any time, you can enjoy a TED lecture or access new music, online learning or online fun; not to mention the social networking that allows you to stay connected and have a chat with family and friends around the world.
"At age 20, we worry about what others think of us. At age 40, we don’t care what they think of us. At age 60, we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all."
- Ann Landers
Extend this curiosity beyond your screen and you have the potential to find happiness everywhere while also keeping your mind stimulated, active and engaged. From a conversation with someone in the supermarket queue to the ingredients for a new dish you want to try on its shelves, from the evening class you sign up for to the trip abroad you take.
Curiosity can broaden our minds, both factually and philosophically. It can keep us in touch with the world around us, and make us more mindful of it while also enriching our lives and relationships, whatever our age.
All research-based evidence about happiness shows that it’s having good personal relationships, with partners, family and friends, that helps support our happiness.
"Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears."
- John Lennon
As we age, we can lose those we love and feelings of isolation and loneliness can creep in. Guard against this, be open to new friendships and possibilities, create opportunities to mix with and meet people, those you know and those you’ve not yet met.
Prioritise those you love but maintain other social networks. And be open to all age groups; everyone has something to offer.
Extract from I Want to Be Happy by Harriet Griffey, (Hardie Grant £7.99) with illustrations by Julia Murray
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