“Happiness is not ready made. It comes from our actions.” This quote from the Dalai Lama holds particular meaning for me during the holidays. While the holiday season is a time of celebration, family reunions, and childlike wonder, many of us are not immune to sadness – particularly as we age. We may have lost loved ones or live a great distance from those we care about. Loss of independence, loneliness, health challenges, and financial limitations may put a damper on our joy, reminding us that happiness is not just something that happens (as in, you have it or you don’t), but needs to be cultivated.
How can we find the joy of the season when we may not be feeling particularly jolly?
Long-term research consistently shows us that our risk of cancer, depression, heart disease, dementia and a slew of other chronic illnesses are greatly reduced when we’re socially connected. Studies have shown that being socially connected adds nine years to a person’s life expectancy, improves cognitive function and supercharges our immune system. Therefore, the solution to the holiday blues is simple: Be with people – even your crazy uncle or tattooed niece. Furthermore, remember the adage “’Tis better to give than receive?” Of course, you do! Well, guess what? Providing social support to others in need or who are feeling lonely not only helps them, but it helps you. Those who volunteer, mentor or simply lend a compassionate ear have better health outcomes, higher self-esteem and report feeling happier.
With this in mind, here are five tips for staying socially connected this season:
- Get outside and get moving. Physical activity reduces depression, and by getting out, you’re more likely to encounter others who are nostalgic and looking to enjoy the season with others.
- Seek out holiday events. Many local towns plan events to help their citizens celebrate the holidays together. You can often find out about many of these events through the local news (online, TV and newspapers). Additionally, sites such as www.Meetup.com provide information for participating in special interest groups or social groups for older adults in your area.
- Volunteer. In this season of giving, reaching out to others in need will not only remind you to adopt an attitude of gratitude in your own life, but you will feel the joy of the season and reap the health benefits that come from serving others. You’re also more likely to meet like-minded people looking to expand their own social network.
- Mentor a child or spend time with children. The International Council on Active Aging reported that people over 55-years-old who volunteered to assist school children or tutor not only improved cognitive function but burned twice as many calories as non-volunteers. Being with children requires that we become more active and focused. Kids also remind us of that magical time in our own childhood when we believed in fairies and Santa Claus, and that all things were possible. And let’s face it: Kids really do say the darndest things. If you want more happiness in your life, make children a part of it.
- Practice mindfulness. Simply taking a few minutes to pause and focus on our breathing – noticing our inhalations and exhalations – can help us reduce stress, lower our blood pressure and begin to “check in” on our emotional state. If you prefer, listen to your favorite holiday music while breathing mindfully.
Remember, finding happiness and avoiding isolation requires effort. Being happy, dear friends is a choice. By remaining active, being socially engaged, volunteering, being around children and practicing mindfulness, we can return to that feeling of joy that we all want. Happy holidays! Live long; live well!