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Engagement, Knowledge and Fulfillment: Important Ingredients for Happiness and Longevity

Dana Larsen
By Dana LarsenApril 18, 2012

Healthy aging is all about stimulation and exercise—both mental and physical—in tandem with a true sense of well-being and engagement. This recipe of health helps to keep disease at bay and longevity more likely, research shows.

We all know that our brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised. Well it turns out that our mind may actually be the closest thing to the “Holy Grail of longevity and happiness” we have, according to Harvard University.

Our mind needs stimulation to thrive, which, in turn affects our bodies. It’s finding the healthy balance of physical exercise to release endorphins and mental stimulation to build human drive, purpose and overall happiness. These are the ingredients to achieving learning and a sense of worth and satisfaction; both necessary for healthy aging.

Aging Gracefully, not “Graysfully”

Keeping the mind engagingly active will do as much for our emotional well being as tending to our physical imperfections. Covering gray hair is a ruse to camouflage aging, and while it may make us feel better; it doesn’t actually get to the root of keeping us young. “As we get older, it is more important to find things to do that light up our lives,” says Jacquelyn James, the director of research at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work. We are able to thrive when our minds are engaged.

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Acquiring new skills, meeting new people, being involved in a community and stimulating the mind through games and cognitive exercises can all help with keeping the mind young. Successful aging and longevity take work—life-long work of finding things to keep the mind interested, entertained and thriving. It’s the patterns of lifelong learning that make the difference to happiness, longevity and mental well-being.

Mental and Physical Exercise as Disease Prevention

Keeping the blood flowing throughout our bodies and brains keeps us active. It’s good for us on a cellular level. In fact, there has recently been a surge in attention to mental exercise as a way of preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

The link between cognitive exercise as disease prevention has not been definitively established, but many scientists believe there is a beneficial relationship between lifelong learning and staying socially active, with mental well-being and happiness later in life. This makes sense. When older people become isolated from the world and social exposure, they can lose the activities that trigger their minds to engage in enjoyable and stimulating activities. Often times, when a person becomes disengaged with life, he/she becomes depressed or stressed. It is this sort of behavior that can bring on disease.

Finding the “Flow” to Stimulate Your Brain

Learning provides us with knowledge and fulfillment. Much like when a toddler experiences new things in the world or learns how to do something for the first time. This tangible happiness is something we need throughout life—it shouldn’t stop when we reach a certain age.

When we become absorbed in a task, it’s normal to lose track of time and place. It’s almost like time finds a new continuum as hours seem like minutes. Even if someone may be physically tired, their mind keeps them engaged and happy if they’re enjoying their task at hand. This condition is known as “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s.

How “Flow” Helps With Coping, Engagement and Happiness

Even if someone is exposed to less than desirable conditions, having something to keep them engaged or look forward to—giving their mind a meaningful focus, for example—can provide healthy thinking and fulfillment. If an activity is absorbing and meaningful, it can distract from uncomfortable situations and exposures in life. For example, Csikszentmihalyi notes that this “flow” helps people in war or dangerous situations. He recalls how people in war-ravaged Europe could happily lose themselves in an activity, like chess or soccer. And risky activities, such as rock climbing and sky diving, can be absorbing and meaningful, distracting people from the fact that they may be in physical danger. In fact, despite the risk, people keep going back for more, if the activity is engaging enough. Humans crave mental stimulation and fulfillment—that release of endorphins. “People just liked to do” such activities, he says. “They don’t need to be told to do it. They don’t need money to do it.”

People totally engaged in pursuits can “trigger healthful changes in their brain chemistry and respiratory patterns,” according to Csikszentmihalyi and other researchers. So to stay young and tap into the fountain of youth, senior citizens should continue to do things in life that stimulate them and make them happy. Whether it’s volunteering, continuing to work, keep up social relations, reading or gardening; finding that “flow” is important to a sense of purpose and happiness. Seems simple, right? It’s actually harder than it seems as we age, lose focus and deal with physical and social changes.

Watch this video by Huffington Post to learn more how the brain is affected by this type of engagement.

Dana Larsen
Dana Larsen
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