Fighting Fear

Confronting phobias and other fears

Happiness - Part 2

The activities that lead to being happy.

Studies suggest that people are in a better mood when they are active, rather than in repose. Well, we know that. People get caught up with doing things. There is an excitement in the moment. And, sometimes, joyfulness. On the other hand, someone upset about something gets more upset just sitting around and thinking about it. So, if something goes wrong, people are advised to do something. Fix the problem, if possible; but do something. Go jogging. See a friend. Anyone jilted, or fired, or worried about some other matter, is always encouraged to get out of the house and do something. If possible, do it with someone else. People in mourning are usually encouraged to go back to work as soon as possible. In general, busy people seem to be happy. And, in my experience, at least, the very busiest people—people who seem to be rushing from one place to another all the time—are happiest.

Couples with young children are busier than at other times in their lives, and, for that reason, they seem at such a time to be more alive. They start the day hurrying to get their children ready for school before they, themselves, head off to work. Work has its own hurried demands and distractions, interrupted by responsibilities at home and coordinating over the telephone with other family and friends. Plans are made a little at a time throughout the day. These plans include coming home at a particular time, dealing with children, thinking about what to do over the weekend and, maybe over the summer vacation. The late afternoon and evening are given over to shuttling the kids from one activity to another and talking to them, of course, about various issues that come up invariably day to day.  Couples have a sexual life and a social life that are intrinsic to their lives. And there are other things to do. People complain about not having enough time to do them; but they keep signing up for more things to do, because each of those things seems worthwhile. And that is an example of someone living happily. 

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Over the course of a lifetime, most people develop ways of living successfully. The trick is not just to be busy, but to find things that are meaningful. Of course, what is special to one person may mean nothing to someone else. One person likes to travel, another does not. One person likes to read, while someone else prefers to play tennis or some other sport. Certain relationships matter especially, for example, those with children or with certain particular friends. And things proceed normally. Until something happens.

Usually, the way of life I describe above goes without saying. People hurry through their days without stopping to think about where exactly they are going. And that’s fine. Some philosopher said, “The unexamined life is not worth living;” which is plainly untrue. Most people live in this head-long way, without stopping to think; and they are happy. Until something happens. These are some of those things that can happen:

  1. The children go off to college; or they marry and, possibly, move away. Parents—both parents—go through a “change of life,” which has less to do with hormonal changes than it does, literally, a change of life. If parents’ lives were centered on children, that loss is disruptive and unsettling. Women who have been out of the work force in order to stay home with children may try to go back to work; but finding work is not so easy these days.
  2. Illness. Not uncommonly, people get seriously sick as they grow older—or their spouse gets sick—and the dynamics in the family shift abruptly. Activities which were a principal source of satisfaction are sometimes impossible. These include physical activities, but also, as the result of certain illnesses, social and intellectual activities too. Sex may become impaired.
  3. Divorce or death. Suddenly, men and women in their fifties or sixties, and at other ages too, have to redefine their lives. Most activities that couples engage in are now impossible. So many of the activities mentioned above take place within the context of a family; and that family has been disrupted now.
  4. Retirement. It is important to retire to something rather than from something. In general, retirement is a bad idea. I certainly see individuals, and couples, who enjoy retirement, traveling here and there to see grandchildren, or just traveling. But for every such person, I see a number who come to my office telling me retirement was the worst decision they ever made. Someone is no longer or doctor or lawyer, or a businessman. He/she becomes an ex-doctor, or lawyer, or businessman. Such a person becomes old overnight.  The spouses of retired men are discomforted also. The women complain to me: “He’s underfoot all the time. He asks, where am I going, and when am I coming back. I spent the last forty years doing what I wanted, and I don’t want to start having to answer to someone else now.”

The ways someone has lived up until now may no longer work under these new, more limited, circumstances. Those activities that can be undertaken, and that I recommend for retired persons, for example. fall into a few main categories:

New Work. A paying job is best. The job does not have to be prestigious. Working organizes the day and provides social involvement with others. A part-time job is better than no job. Volunteer work is better than no work, but not as good as a paying job because volunteers are not treated as respectfully as someone who is being paid.

1         Intellectual pursuits. Anything that is interesting is worth doing: auditing college courses, joining a book club, reading about a favorite subject, and so on.

2         Ordinary physical pleasures. Walking or exercising. Appreciating a sunset or listening to music. I often think of these satisfactions as “animal pleasures.” They include sex, eating, playing with a pet, and so on.

3         Social activities. Like other primates, human beings are intensely social. It is difficult for someone who is isolated to be happy. Meeting new people through internet groups or other social or professional groups is likely to make a big difference in the lives of people who are starting over. The presence of other family members makes a big difference.

4         Creative activities. I think doing something creative accomplishes something that goes beyond other activities. Creative activities should not be dismissed out of hand because that person denies having any talent. Many people discover talents they did not know earlier in life that they possessed. The kinds of things people try to do include drawing, ceramics, making stained glass, writing, making fine furniture, and even making sculpture. I have seen people lose themselves in these occupations once they give them a try. Grandma Moses did not start painting until she was seventy years old.

5         Finally, some people find an over-arching purpose when everything else has gone from their lives. Some of these people join churches or commit themselves to other charitable work. Usually, such a purpose cannot be undertaken successfully unless the seeds of that interest were present previously.

Those people who cope successfully with loss, or cope successfully with having grown old, are those who look forward to the future. They look forward to learning new things, going to new places and meeting new people. In fact, that describes people of any age who are happy.  (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

Fredric Neuman, M.D. is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.

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