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January 15, 2015

Why Older Adults Should Make Happiness a Priority

As we age, our priorities change. Perhaps we are less focused on our careers or raising children and more focused on traveling or volunteer work. Work, family, hobbies—these are familiar priorities. But have you ever thought of making happiness a priority? If happiness did not make it onto your list of priorities, you may want to add it. Here’s why.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that passes information from one neuron to the next, released when dopamine neurons become activated. Dopamine neurons become activated when something good happens unexpectedly, leading to feelings of pleasure and happiness.

According to Gregory Berns, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry at Emory University, as we age, we slowly lose dopamine synapses (junctions between two nerve cells) and dopamine neurons.4  This means it can become more difficult for us to achieve feelings of pleasure and happiness over time. “As far as we know,” Dr. Berns says, “no one has observed those regenerating. If it’s too severe, then you end up with Parkinson’s disease.”

However, Berns says, the “use it or lose it” principle may apply to the brain, meaning if you seek out experiences that release dopamine, you may be able to lessen dopamine synapses and neuronal loss.

The elevated risk for depression is another reason older adults should make happiness a priority. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression affects approximately 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older (just less than 20 percent). Depression increases risk for medical illnesses (especially cardiac diseases), death from illness, suicide, and cognitive decline and reduces an older adult’s ability to rehabilitate. Depression in older adults often goes untreated because many people think depression is a natural reaction to chronic illness, loss, and life transitions.

It may seem contradictory, but negativity (or more accurately, how quickly a person can recover from negative experiences) is a key contributor to happiness. Responding to adversity—ranging from stubbing your toe to losing a loved one—is normal. According to Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology & Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, happy people show an appropriate response to adversity, and then come back down to baseline quickly.5 Unhappier people, on the other hand, tend to dwell on negative experiences, which can lead to prolonged periods of sadness and, possibly, depression.

But perhaps the most important reason older adults should make happiness a priority is that people who are happier are more likely to make a positive contribution to society. According to The Guardian, they are more likely to vote, do voluntary work, and participate in public activities. They also have a greater respect for law and order and offer more help to others.

Make happiness a priority in your life. Start by checking out our free guide, “Be Happy: How to Take Control of Your Happiness as You Get Older.”

Download the Happiness as You Get Older Guide

[4] Burns, Gregory, M.D., Ph.D. Happy. Dir: Roko Belic. Wadi Rum Productions, Iris Films, Emotional Content and Shady Acres. 2011. Documentary.

[5] Davidson, Richard J., Ph.D. Happy. Dir: Roko Belic. Wadi Rum Productions, Iris Films, Emotional Content and Shady Acres. 2011. Documentary.


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