Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.
I’ve been thinking a lot about middle age of late, and what it is – exactly – that makes us more or less happy as we round this phase of life.
It might be that my 46th birthday looms on the horizon next week, which makes me feel like I’m already entering the second half of my existence. (For reasons I can’t explain, I have apparently decided that I’m going to live to 90.)
Or it might be that Blue Monday (the third Monday of January, purported to be the saddest day of the year) just passed. Fictitious or not – that milestone always prompts me to reassess my emotional state and decide if I’m happier or sadder than I was at this time last year.
To that end, I’ve taken a keen interest in recent research on emotional health in adulthood and what makes for happier grown ups:
1. Maternal Care – While the research is still confined to rats, it looks like maternal care influences brain chemistry into adulthood. Most of us would probably agree that this statement is likely true. But scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg have demonstrated that intensive maternal care during infancy promotes the development of a specific hormone in the brain, which in turn controls the development of anxiety and stress responses. While the study still needs to be extended to humans, the preliminary results suggest that how much your mother dotes on you when you’re very young may be key to understanding things like post-traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders as you age. Ditto the adverse effects of maternal favoritism.
2. Religiosity – Another important factor in determining emotional well-being in adulthood is how religious you are. Modern happiness research leaves no doubt that religious people are happier than their contemporaries. This is something that has been born out both within societies and across them. Interestingly, however, American Jews scored the highest of any religious group on a “well-being” index within the United States, even though more than half of Jews are non-religious. So disregard all that kvetching and moaning; behind it all, Jews are actually feeling OK. (Perhaps that’s why I identify so much with them?)
3. Imaginary Friends – Oh! How excited I was to learn this: a recent study out of NYU shows that having imaginary friends in childhood lays the groundwork for a more stable emotional adulthood. And that’s because through these imaginary friendships, what you’re actually doing is practicing how to express your emotions without fear of censorship or derision, all the while bolstering your creativity and verbal skills. As someone who grew up with a best friend called Con Brick Chair – and must listen endlessly to my own daughter chattering away in her imaginary play – I’m so pleased to hear that this behavior may actually be functional!
4. Early Sex – On the less encouraging end of things, research also suggests that early sex could trigger mood swings in adulthood. Again, the research has so far been conducted only on animals. But it implies that there may be an appropriate “age” to begin having sexual relationships, and that adolescents begin too young, this may have negative consequences for anxiety and depression later on. (Interestingly, being sexually active doesn’t seem to affect their school performance.) Something tells me that – if born out on real teens – these results might be of interest to politicians!
5. Choosing Happiness – I was delighted to happen upon a summary in the New York Times of a new book by Karl Pillemer called 30 Lessons For Living Well. In it, Dr. Pillemer – a human development scholar at Cornell University – interviewed more than 1,000 Americans from different economic, educational and occupational strata to get their personal views on what has made them happy throughout life, ranging from marriage to careers to aging itself. The article is fascinating on many counts, but one particular result stood out. Almost every single one of the interviewees concurred that happiness is a choice, not the result of how life treats you. So regardless of what happens to you early on in life, the consensus from those who’ve been there is that you are in charge of how you react towards those stimuli and for adopting a pro-active approach to being happy.
It’s nice to end on a positive note, no?
Image: Self Portrait by kasi metcalf via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.