En español | While the pandemic was hard on nearly everyone, where we're at now — as vaccination rates rise and COVID-19 infections drop — is starting to feel much more individual. Certainly, some older adults are still dealing with the longer-term effects of the loneliness and isolation that came with stay-at-home orders, says Bruce Rabin, M.D., professor emeritus of preventive medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “It's concerning, because we know loneliness has been linked to memory loss, heart disease, and even increased mortality rates in older adults."
But others may be feeling a lift from resuming all the activities put on hold earlier in the pandemic — book clubs, dining in restaurants, going to workout classes or even to your house of worship. And then there are those in the middle — feeling the glimmers of hope and greater appreciation for family and friends, yet still struggling to face their new normal with energy and equanimity.
Wherever you're at, there's always room, and reason, to shoot for a little more happiness.
Here are five ways to reengage and find more joy in life:
1. Count your blessings
Research has consistently shown that people who practice gratitude have a lower risk of depression, higher levels of relationship satisfaction and greater resilience in the face of stressful events, says psychologist Acacia Parks, chief scientist at Happify Health. She recommends that you take five minutes at the end of each day to write about three things that happened to you that were good. Research shows that if you do this exercise every day for just one week, you can experience an increase in happiness for at least six months. “Our brains are wired to give extra attention to the negative,” explains Parks. “But if you purposefully focus on positive things, you'll automatically begin to notice all of the good around you, instead of dwelling on the bad.” Nightly gratitude lists have the added benefit of helping you doze off happily — which may lead to better sleep quality as well, she adds.
2. Take a hike
Just the very act of being outdoors impacts your mood, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, distinguished professor and vice chair, Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside. A 2014 Japanese study found that people who walked in a forest for 15 minutes had lower heart rates and reported better moods and lower anxiety than those who did a similar walk in an urban environment. “There's something about being in nature that lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and reduces stress hormones,” Lyubomirsky explains. You don't even need to hoof it to a forest. You can get many of the same benefits by exploring a quieter part of your neighborhood, she adds. Experts also recommend trying walking meditation: Focus on the sensation of your breath as it moves in and out of your body, or the feeling of your feet touching the ground. If your mind wanders, bring it back to focus on one of those sensations.
3. Master a new skill
Whether it's taking up golf or signing up for a virtual language class, you'll reap happiness benefits by stretching yourself to try new things. When people focus on tasks that built their skill set, the stress they feel at first tends to yield increased happiness in the long term, according to a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. “During the pandemic, a lot of our goals were put on hold — now is the time to pursue them,” says Lyubomirsky, who recommends pursuing something “challenging enough to get you out of your comfort zone, but not so complex you give up in frustration.” You can also try simply planning a vacation to a new locale, visiting a museum once a month, or regularly attending outdoor concerts. A study published in the Review of General Psychology found that people who engage in a variety of experiences are more likely to feel positive emotions, including happiness.
Older adults who volunteer for two to three hours a week report less depression, better overall health and longer lives than those who don't, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Bulletin. Experts say you'll get the biggest lift from something you do regularly, at which you make social connections and invest your time and skills. If you're not yet fully vaccinated, there are plenty of opportunities available online, says Rabin. You can find opportunities near you at Volunteer Match. Or simply sprinkle little acts of kindness throughout your week, says Lyubomirsky. “Anything that you do — whether it's grocery shopping for someone still afraid to venture out, or assisting a neighbor's child with remote learning — reaps happiness benefits,” she says.
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5. Savor the moment
The more time you spend thinking about the good stuff from the past, present and future, the happier you will feel. “It's about being mindful and lingering on the positive experiences of your lives,” says Parks. “It doesn't just create positive feelings — it amplifies them and makes them last longer.” One easy way to do this, she says, is to take a minute or two every day to really focus on what you're doing, especially if it's an activity you usually do without thinking. “Most of us mostly zone out in the shower, but if you take a few minutes to think about how nice the water feels on your skin, and how good it feels to get clean, it really brings you into the present moment,” she says. When you sit down to a meal, bring all your senses to the table and concentrate on how the food feels in your mouth, or its smell. Research shows that people who practiced these techniques for 30 days reported more happiness.