In Greek mythology, Eos, goddess of the dawn, fell in love with a mortal man, Tithonus. Eos begged Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal life, and Zeus did exactly what Eos asked. At first, Eos was joyful. She imagined an eternity of bliss with her youthful lover. But as time passed, she realized she had been foolish in her request. Tragically, Eos had failed to ask Zeus to grant Tithonus eternal health and vitality to go along with his immortality.
Miraculous advances in medicine and public health have made it possible for us to live remarkably longer lives, but not necessarily healthier or happier ones. Over the past two decades, I have worked to understand this longevity conundrum—to identify the causes of premature aging and to figure out what we can do to slow, delay, or even prevent the process of cognitive decline. In 2009, I joined forces with Roger Anunsen to pursue these questions.
Loss of brain function can be a devastating aspect of aging, so we were fascinated with how the brain works and why it begins to fail over time. Our interest in the brain coincided with an explosion of advancements in the fields of neuroscience, neurology, and cognition. The past decade has produced a wealth of valuable research clearly revealing the risk factors that contribute to cognitive decline and dementia.
Brain health is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient to achieve “Qualongevity,” the term Roger and I coined to capture the dual goals of longevity and quality of life. To fully enjoy longevity, we need a healthy brain and a creative mind that can cultivate happiness, meaning, and purpose.
The new field of positive psychology has matured sufficiently to provide evidence-based guidance about the pursuit of happiness and quality of life. It turns out we need to learn how to be happy. Researchers think that 50 percent of our happiness is genetically determined, and 10 percent depends on current life circumstances. That means that 40 percent of our happiness depends on intentional activities, on the choices we make about how to live our lives.
So what kind of intentional activities consistently contribute to happiness? Research by positive psychologists finds that happy people are grateful, forgiving, kind, optimistic, and resilient. The happiest people spend time with family and friends. And they set goals.
Happy people are goal-oriented. They set both short and long-term goals and are committed to pursuing them. As Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leader in this field, frames it, “Find a happy person, and you will find a project.”
Having goals contributes to subjective well-being in a number of ways:
- Goals provide a sense of purpose and a feeling of control over your life.
- Goals bolster your self-esteem and boost your confidence.
- Goals add structure and meaning to your daily life.
- Goals provides opportunities for ongoing learning, personal development, and mastery.
- Finally, goals bring you into contact with other people around shared values and objectives.
Do you want to live longer and live well? Assuming your answer is “Yes,” then set yourself the dual goals of achieving longevity and quality of life, then work to achieve both. We call this the Quest for Qualongevity: the pursuit of long life, coupled with fulfilling quality of life. Here are some ways you can cultivate intentional activities that will boost your happiness.
Happier people have a positive rather than negative approach to life. Positive psychologist Barbara Fredrickson suggests that to feel happy, you need to experience three positive events for every negative event.
- Pay attention to positives. What activities make you feel good? Which people make you feel positive? Can you identify environments that feel positive?
- Make positivity a priority. Once you have identified what makes you feel good and positive, make sure your day is filled with positive activities, positive places, and positive people.
Happy people are grateful for what they have and are comfortable expressing their gratitude to others.
- Find opportunities to express gratitude about simple, everyday things.
- Keep a gratitude journal, writing about aspects of your life that make you grateful.
Forgiving is something you do for yourself. Forgiveness is not reconciliation or a pardon for the wrong that was done. Forgiveness is a process of letting go of debilitating hurt, anger, and resentment and moving forward positively with your life.
- Consider a time when you have been forgiven and consider how you and others benefited from that act of forgiveness.
- Write, but don’t send, a letter of forgiveness to someone who you feel has hurt you or wronged you. Explain the nature of the injury or offense and how it affected you. Finish with an explicit statement of forgiveness.
Learn to savor your life
Life is filled with sources of pleasure, joy, and awe, but too often we fail to notice them. People who are mindfully attentive to the here and now and are acutely aware of their surroundings are more likely to be happy, optimistic, and satisfied with their lives.
- Practice mindfulness.
- Slow down, put your cell phone away, and pay attention to what is going on.
- Eat slowly and explore the flavors and textures of the food you eat.
Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of others. Compassion is the desire to act to relieve the suffering of others. Research shows that acts of kindness are good for the recipient and good for the doer. Being generous and willing to share makes people happy.
- Sonja Lyubomirsky recommends picking one day of the week during which you resolve to perform one large act of kindness or three to five smaller acts of kindness.
- Explore different ways of being kind to others.
Michael C. Patterson, founder and CEO of MINDRAMP Consulting, writes extensively on the art and science of brain health and mental flourishing. He is an educator and consultant who previously managed AARP’s Staying Sharp brain health program and helped develop the field of creative aging.