Happiness and Healthy Aging: What's the Connection?

Healthy aging increases happiness … but the opposite also is true.

It seems obvious that good health in our later years would make it easier to enjoy life. Yet two recent reports from Canada show that the way we feel about life—and about ourselves—is intertwined with our health in a more complicated way.

Feeling Good About Life

The first study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, showed that people who enjoy life are more likely to maintain better physical function. The authors of the study, a research team from University College in London, asked 3,199 people age 60 and older to answer questions such as "I enjoy the things that I do," "I enjoy being in the company of others" and "I look back on my life with a sense of happiness." They also tested the walking ability of the participants, and surveyed them about their ability to perform the activities of daily living.

The team then followed the group of seniors during the course of eight years. Said head researcher Dr. Andrew Steptoe, "The study shows that older people who are happier and enjoy life more show slower declines in physical function as they age. They are less likely to develop impairments in activities of daily living such as dressing or getting out of bed, and their walking speed declines at a slower rate than those who enjoy life less."

Is this just because those who enjoyed better health were in turn happier? Dr. Steptoe says, "This is not because the happier people are in better health, or younger, or richer, or have more healthy lifestyles at the outset, since even when we take these factors into account, the relationship persists."

Feeling Good About Ourselves

The second study examines the connection between healthy aging and the way we think about ourselves. Most parents are concerned with building good self-esteem in their children—but self-esteem is just as important for older adults, according to researchers from Concordia University in Montreal. They found that older adults with a higher level of self-esteem were better able to avoid or cope with health problems. What is behind this connection? Researchers have long known that low self-esteem raises the level of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to anxiety and depression, sleep problems, and a greater risk of diseases of the heart, memory and digestion.

According to Dr. Sarah Liu of the Concordia research team, "Improving self-esteem provides real benefits in seniors." Although poor health, life changes following retirement, and our culture’s negative attitudes about aging all can take a toll on our sense of self-worth, Dr. Liu says it is vital to overcome these obstacles. She adds, "The ultimate goal may be to prevent self-esteem from declining."

What can we do to improve our attitude about life in general and ourselves in particular? If this is a challenge for you or an older loved one, it’s never too late to try some of these well-known mood boosters:

  • Get more physical exercise.
  • Learn more about the positive aspects of aging.
  • Check out self-help books or books on tape.
  • Seek opportunities to laugh.
  • Practice meditation, tai chi or yoga.
  • Do more of the things in life that make you feel good—and fewer of the things that don’t.
  • Express your gratitude.
  • Take a class or learn a new skill.
  • Volunteer—a great way to increase happiness and build self-esteem.
  • Join a club or other group with people who share your interests.
  • Adopt a pet, if you like animals and it is practical to do so.
  • If negative feelings persist, talk to your healthcare provider; treating depression can help you regain your zest for life.

Both research teams call for interventions to improve senior well-being. Says University College London’s Dr. Steptoe, "Our results provide further evidence that enjoyment of life is relevant to the future disability and mobility of older people. Efforts to enhance well-being at older ages may have benefits to society and healthcare systems."

Concordia University’s Dr. Liu adds, "Because self-esteem is associated with psychological well-being and physical health, raising self-esteem would be an ideal way to help prevent health problems."

The original studies can be found in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Spending time with others is one of the top ways to improve our mood and self-esteem. But the physical, mental and environmental challenges of aging can make it harder to find opportunities for socializing. Read on to the next article to find out how in-home care supports the social needs of older adults.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.