Who among us doesn’t dread the thought of getting older? We are afraid of dying badly—in pain, alone, unloved, or suffering from dementia. These fears are natural, of course, especially in a country that tends to focus on youthfulness and beauty. But trust me: the worst is not inevitable.
Marie De Hennezel reminds us of this in her book, “The Warmth of the Heart prevents your Body from Rusting.” De Hennezel has studied and written about people who are at the end of their lives. She’s listened to thousands of people and heard their stories. Through it all, she has had to grapple with her own fears about death and dying. Ultimately, though, she was able to transcend her fears because she came to understand that how we live will shape how we die:
“Something within us does not grow old. I shall call it the heart, the capacity to love and to desire, that inexplicable, incomprehensible force which keep the human being alive.”
For those lacking the time or resources to read her book, here are eight keys to having the happiest possible life and death.
1. Prioritize Family and Friends
Social connections are the key to happiness with age. Friends and family members are the perfect people to lift your aging loved one up when he or she is feeling down. They’re also the ones who will be there to celebrate your loved one’s special moments. Make it a point to call or visit your loved one whenever you can.
2. Keep Smiling
It sounds simple, but it’s often difficult to smile when times get tough. However, just the act of smiling triggers hormones in the body associated with happiness. Starting off with a smile in the mirror may set a positive tone for the whole day.
3. Discover New Interests
It’s easier to be happy when there are things to look forward to each day. As we age, we can take classes and explore different hobbies that stimulate the mind and body. This keeps us growing, learning and connected to others.
4. Stay Healthy
Little health problems can become big ones that reduce happiness. For instance, an injury that goes untreated could lead to chronic pain that makes it difficult to feel happy. We should make a promise to ourselves to keep regularly scheduled health checkup appointments and go in for exams when we have unusual symptoms. We should also follow the basic tenets of a healthy lifestyle to stave off common health conditions that occur with aging. I don’t need to list them; I know you know what they are (smiley face).
5. Maintain a Sense of Humor
The idea that we lose our senses of humor as we age is a myth. We don’t have to become curmudgeons. We can choose to continue to laugh at the funny things in life so we can blow off the bad things that happen. Watching a funny movie or telling a few jokes with friends can and does lift our spirits.
6. Go Outside Every Day
Sunshine is a major mood booster. If we start feeling down, go outside. Even sitting on the porch in the sunshine for a few minutes can work wonders for emotional health.
7. Give Back to the Community
As I’ve written in prior columns, helping others helps us even more! Whether you love to write cards to soldiers who are stationed overseas or would love to help with grooming dogs at the animal shelter, you will feel good knowing these actions have made a positive impact on others.
8. Remember: it’s all about Love
When we do get to the end and we look back at our lives, there will be a pressing question that we all must face: how well did we love others? Did we love enough? Did we spend our days marveling at the wonders of life, of other people, being happy together, feeling the value of contact? Did we know how to devote ourselves to love?
Before we die, let us commit ourselves to placing love at the center of our lives — opening our souls and our hands, looking at others through the light of compassion, clasping what we love tightly to ourselves, and expressing gratitude for it all. For in so doing, we radiate with affection and draw happiness to ourselves. And when the time comes when we do encounter suffering (as we all must do), we rest in the comfort of knowing that we do not walk alone.
My friends, this is how to both live and die happy.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Kate Lore is a Jefferson County Hospital Hospice Chaplain in Port Townsend. Her email is [email protected]