I ran across a survey done last year, sponsored by Ally Bank, that questioned more than a thousand people to find out what makes them happy. The survey focused on money, but as an outgrowth of the questions, some interesting findings popped up about what really makes people feel good.
Everyone knows that enjoying the intimacy of a long-term relationship improves your chances to be happy. And it helps if you're lucky enough to be in good health, have some close friends and enjoy a positive relationship with children or grandchildren. But the survey revealed four other significant factors that contribute to a higher level of personal happiness.
First is exercising. Almost 60 percent of the respondents said that taking part in a regular exercise program makes them feel happy. Why? Engaging in exercise is a positive, helpful way to cope with stress. Studies indicate that exercise mimics the effects of antidepressants. It helps increase our energy levels, and boosts levels of endorphins and other "feel-good" chemicals in the brain.
Participating in a sport or exercise program can give you a sense of accomplishment, and if you do it with other people (golf, tennis, softball, dancing, a spin class), helps you make friends and feel like you're part of a supportive social group. A good workout has also been shown to improve people's sleep patterns, as well as promote the development of new brain cells that can increase memory and learning capabilities.
Enjoying your work. In America, work is not only the activity that takes up most of our time, it is an identifying characteristic, one that is central to our sense of who we are. So 68 percent of those polled said enjoying work increases overall happiness. Other studies have showed that Americans who feel they are successful are twice as likely to be happy compared to people who don’t feel that way. Work can engage our interests and our skills, and empower us to create value in our lives. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "Happiness lies ... in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.”
The issue for retired people is that we no longer work. Yet work leaves its legacy. We still identify with our profession. We're retired; but we tell people that we once were a lawyer, teacher, banker or chef. And we all know that we can still find a sense of accomplishment in our volunteer work, or our artwork, or our classwork . . . or in helping take care of our grandchildren.
Eating healthy. The foods we eat indirectly but indisputably influence the functioning of our brains. One key to improving our mood is to cut back on sugary and salty snacks in favor of nutritious alternatives. A study published in Archives of General Psychiatry found that people who ate a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil, vegetables, fish and whole grains reported 30 percent fewer depressive symptoms than those who consumed a typical American diet.
In addition, of course, people who eat right are less likely to get sick; they recover more easily if they do get sick; and they likely live longer than people who are overweight or consume a poor diet. In addition, certain foods affect our brain chemistry and help us stay happy. It's no coincidence that we turn to carbohydrates, from cookies to ice cream, from pasta to peanuts, when we are feeling blue. Carb-rich foods stimulate release of serotonin, which at least in the short term tends to improve our mood. And then there's chocolate. Personally, I'm not a big fan of chocolate. But the nutritionists tell us it boosts levels of brain chemicals like phenylethylamine and anandamide that can bring on a euphoric feeling.
Saving money. The Ally survey showed that it's not how much you earn that makes you happy; it's how much money you have left over. A surprisingly high 84 percent of people acknowledged that saving for a rainy day makes them feel more secure and more in control of their lives, leading to an overall sense of well-being. And the more you save, the more likely you are to be happy – 57 percent of those who boasted $100,000 or more in savings were extremely or very happy, versus 42 percent who'd squirreled away $20,000 to $100,000 and 34 percent who had less than $20,000 to their name.
Of course, most retired people are not adding to their accounts. We're withdrawing. But the happiness factor comes with the sense of control. So if we have a plan, and can reasonably expect that our retirement resources are going to cover our needs, then it helps support that sense of well being, and even accomplishment.