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The Happiness Prescription

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How finding  joy can boost longevity

By Debbie Gardner

    How happy are you? Very happy? Pretty happy? Sorta happy?

      Your answer might just affect your longevity, and there’s data to back it up.

      The first-ever study examining the effect of happiness on life expectancy, conducted by researchers for the National Institutes of Health in 2015, found a direct correlation between an individual’s level of happiness and risk of death. That study found that people who were pretty happy were 6% more likely to die, according to 30 years of previous studies examined by NIH the researches, with less-than-happy people 14% more likely to die.

      The surprising fact – the difference in longevity was not necessarily influenced by “marital status, socioeconomic status, census division and religious attendance.”  The study concluded that “happiness as a stand-alone indicator of well-being that should be used more widely in social science and health research.” (“Happiness and Longevity in the United States,” Elizabeth M. Lawrence, PhD, Richard G. Rogers, PhD, and Tim Wadsworth, PhD, Published online 2015 Sept. 18. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2015.09.020).

      In other words, there’s data to prove when it comes to living a longer, healthier life, happiness matters.

‘Good genes are nice, but joy is better’

      The NIH isn’t the only group of researchers who’ve discovered a link between happiness and a long life. The 80-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development – which since 1938 followed a group of 238 Harvard freshmen and their descendants – and since the 1970s, a group of inner-city Boston residents – found that not only happiness, but happy relationships, seemed integral to longer lives.

      “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants,” wrote Liz Mineo, a Harvard staff writer in an April 11, 2017, article – “Good genes are nice, but joy is better” that was part of the college’s Tackling Issues of Aging series.

Finding more joy

      “Genetics loads the gun, lifestyle pulls the trigger,” said Dr. Steve Sobel, a Longmeadow-based motivational speaker who recently spoke with Prime about the subject of happiness and longevity.

      Sobel was preparing to present his popular talk, “Celebrate Joy, Happiness and Humor” at the Pleasant View Senior Center in East Longmeadow on April 3 when he stopped by Reminder Publishing’s offices to give us his take on the importance of finding as much happiness as possible in what he called the “last lap” of life.

      “It boils down to the little things,” like savoring a fresh cup of coffee or marveling at a beautiful sunset, Sobel said of finding joy in everyday life. “Little teaspoons of joy, it doesn’t have to be ladles” to change your mindset.

      Sobel knows of what he speaks. He’s been helping people find joy and balance in life – be it individual groups like the gathering at the Pleasant View Senior Center, a corporate presentation for a Fortune 500 company or a guest spot on a TV program like “Inside Edition” – for decades.

      His 1992 book, “The Good Times Handbook – Your Guide to Positive Living and an Exciting Life” – the original springboard for his presentations on celebrating joy and happiness – is still popular on Sobel’s website and on Amazon.

      But his passion is the kind of small-group, almost one-on-one experience he planned to share with his audience at Pleasant View.

      Acknowledging that aging does present its challenges – health issues, loss of friends and family that sometimes live far away – Sobel said he understands how easy it is for negative thoughts to take over a person’s life and siphon off joy.

      To combat the downside, “You have to have a growth mindset where things are possible,” Sobel said.

The joy mindset

      Prime caught Sobel’s presentation at the Pleasant View Senior Center on April 3, and captured these nuggets of wisdom on adding joy to everyday life.

      He started by challenging the idea of what constitutes “old age.”

      “Age 45 to 60 is now considered middle age,” Sobel told the audience of 25 attendees. “Sixty-five to 75 is older age, 75 to 90 is considered elderly and 90-plus is old age” now, Sobel said, adding that whatever your age, it’s important to make every day count.

      To stress that point, he cited the number of seconds in each day – 860,400 – saying that’s the amount of time “you are allotted in 24 hours to make life work for you, to reinvent yourself and to move forward.”

      He even shared an exercise he suggested everyone do every day to set that joyful mindset.

      “First thing in the morning after you wake up … how many of you have a mirror in the bathroom,” Sobel asked jokingly as the crowd murmured a collective yes. “Go in, stand in front of that mirror, look in that mirror, smile a little and say to yourself ‘There ain’t nobody who is going to ruin my day!’”

      He reminded attendees that we need to be able to laugh, especially at ourselves sometimes, and that humor really is a kind of medicine.

      Laughter, and humor, make the body feel better,” Sobel said. “It helps us to sleep better and as we get older it helps our ‘systems’ to work better … you know what I mean … and helps us to get along better.”

      “You must laugh at yourself, and the stupid little things [in life] every day,” he shared.

      You also need to plan for joy, Sobel said, adding you need to consider “who am I going to surround myself with on purpose? Where am I going to go on purpose?” every day.

      “Surround yourself with positive people,” he stressed.

      In a nod to self-care, Sobel talked about the ways we sometimes steal little bits of joy from ourselves by passing up on the more expensive green beans in the grocery store, or choosing the cheaper meal when we go out to dinner. He said we should choose what makes us happy as much as possible, whether that’s the pricey green beans, the color of our clothes or the wine we choose at dinner.

      “Life is too short to drink the house wine,” he joked.

      But we all have issues in our lives, Sobel noted, such as the individuals who live far from family or those precious grandchildren. We have to acknowledge those issues and find a way to cope with the challenges.

      “Surround yourself with friends,” he said in a nod to the importance of relationships in a long, happy life.

      In the same vein, during a partner exercise, he asked each person to acknowledge and appreciate the other person.

      “With all their idiosyncrasies, all their faults, all their flaws, appreciate them,” Sobel stressed.

      And extend that kindness to others as well, such as people you pass in the hall of your apartment complex, or when you are out and about. A smile, he said, can go a long way. “You might forget what your smile and ‘Hello’ does for someone,” Sobel said. “There’s a change in the body that makes you – and them – feel good.”

      Sobel summed up his prescription for joy and happiness as we age by saying “Be ruthless with your time, but generous with people.”

      A lot of what he suggested is, as he said, “common sense, but you have to practice it.”

      Happiness is about perception… “How you think about things is important,” Sobel said. “You can change at any age. Go for small amounts, even just a 1% change,” to boost your happiness.

      Dr. Sobel will be reintroducing a slate of in-person seminars on laughter, happiness and wellbeing later this spring. Information on the dates and locations will be available on his website,

                You can watch Dr. Sobel’s Pleasant View presentation on the East Longmeadow Cable Channel (ELCAT) YouTube Channel at