Google “oldest person who ever lived” and you’ll meet Jeanne Louise Calment. She passed away in 1997 at the age of 122 years.
According to Wikipedia, Calment was a spicy, enthused, happy soul who liked port and ate two pounds of chocolate/week. She led a very active life. She took up fencing at 85. She was still riding bicycles at 100. At 114 years of age, she starred in the film Vincent and Me (1990). She smoked until 120 years, and she only quit because she couldn’t find her cigarettes. She was witty right up until the end. Apparently when visitors would bid farewell, saying “until next year perhaps?” she always had a good response: “I don’t see why not! You don’t look so bad to me.”
Let me put this in context. In what seems like a lifetime ago (in truth only 2 years ago), I worked as a geriatric psychiatrist. A large number of my patients were 90 years and older, and my greatest endeavor at the time was to help them find happiness in their final years. Few of my patients fenced, and none of them rode bicycles. In fact, all were homebound. I was faced with the same question every day: amidst the wheelchairs, briefs, patronizing kids, and growing caddy of medications, was there room for happiness?
Some were happy, others weren’t. What was the difference? My happy patients were just as disabled and medically ill as the unhappy ones. Those that bubbled joy and mirth weren’t touched by fairies or rainbows. Those who were unhappy didn’t suffer more woe than the rest. That joy de vivre didn’t come from circumstance.
What does that mean? I needed to find out. My advantage was I had a captive audience of happy patients, as well as unhappy ones, and I could ask them anything I wanted. Psychiatrists are granted certain liberties. So I asked questions, and a lot of them. The answer: my patients had more questions than I did. What was happiness, they wanted to know, and how does one achieve it?
My patients and I weren’t the only ones with these questions. The “Happy question” started thousands of years ago. Ranging from Socrates to Shakespeare, politicians to tribal chiefs in distant lands, books to banners at every college campus, the question of happiness transcends geography and time. What is happiness? God knows. That’s a tough one. The next question, the one I’m writing about, follows quickly enough, “What can we do to be happy in old age?”
In psychiatry, there’s a blanket response for everything. To promote happiness, we increase quality of life. We promote happiness by augmenting coping skills, increasing pleasurable experiences, maximizing social support, promoting individual and group therapy, and providing medications when necessary.
As a human, I know the answer isn’t quite that simple. The path to happiness varies from person to person, moment to moment, breath to breath. What brings me euphoria now just might hurt tomorrow. What does that mean about old age?
We go back to the beginning. If in doubt, google. Search the terms “How to find happiness in old age” and you’ll come across something called “Happiness Training Program.” Happiness training? I picture facial exercises, “Rest your face five seconds, now let’s do it again five times… smile, smile, Smile, smile, smile!”
Hang in there a moment. Don’t give up on me. The course, “Happiness Training Program,” developed by psychologist Michael W. Fordyce, includes a list called “Strategies for Increasing Happiness.” The list is pertinent enough it’s worth including in this article. Here’s the secret to happiness:
Strategies for Increasing Happiness
1. Strengthen your closest relationships. Accept others for what they are, rather than becoming critical or angry with them for what they aren’t.
2. Be more social and outgoing. People who are outgoing and sociable are happier than people who are not (Pavot & others, 1990).
3. Keep busy doing things you enjoy. Generate a list of activities you enjoy, then incorporate at least one of them into each day.
4. Engage in pursuits that you find personally important and meaningful.
5. Develop positive, optimistic thinking patterns. Engage in optimistic and pleasant thoughts.
6. Worrying about the future and dwelling on negative past events are significant causes of unhappiness. Solve problems.
People who are outgoing and sociable are happier than people who are not (Pavot & others, 1990). Is this true? Is there reality to this statement? Methinks it’s a complicated assertion, one that talks of whether we need others…
Dr. Fordyce’s message is simple enough. He believes happiness is a choice. Act happy, make happiness a priority, and you become happy.
But do I believe happiness is a choice? Can changing your behavior leave you content for the rest of your life? In truth, I don’t. Not altogether. Not 100% .
Consider depression. Most people with depression have tried EVERYTHING to overcome depression — and found no relief — before they reach my door. They’ve chosen happiness at every turn, without success. Strength and bravery, making the right choices, forcing themselves to think positive, exercise and eating right, choosing healthy friends, avoiding drugs and alcohol… most of the time these things alleviate emotional distress, but not always. Depression is rarely a choice. I see it all the time. There are people so struck by biological misfortune that the only way to avoid or overcome depression (or any mood disturbance) is by adding pharmacological interventions into the mix.
That doesn’t mean happiness isn’t a choice. Not if you step back and look at the entire picture. The willingness to fight against depression is a choice. The willingness to “not give up” is a choice. The willingness to choose optimism over pessimism is a choice, and a good one. People who struggle with depression must choose happiness in ways the rest of the world would never imagine. It’s a constant battle, and the right choices do make a difference. But asking a person who has fallen victim to profound depression to choose to be happy doesn’t work. If they could think or act their way out of their misery, they would have done so a long time ago.
Is happiness a choice then? Yes and no. It’s a contradiction of terms.
People who struggle with depression must choose happiness in ways the rest of the world would never imagine.
As for my elderly patients? I did what I could for them. I promoted healthy lifestyle and on occasion prescribed medications, but in truth they helped me more than I helped them. They taught me about happiness. And they taught me about the importance of questions. Maybe it isn’t about finding happiness. Maybe it’s about the search itself.
I’ll google that and get back to you.