Meaningful activities the key to happy ageing - and a longer life

The key to living a long and happy life is by engaging in meaningful activities. And the more meaningful to the individual, the better, according to new research from Flinders University.

Take 93-year-old Salvation Army volunteer Beryl Wyld, for example.

Her approach to emotional as well as physical health is to maintain engagement with activities she cares about.

She still works in a Salvos Store and has done so for 50 years.

“I like to meet people, I like to greet people … it’s no good staying in the house on your own, you can get bored stiff,” she said.

“[I get] a lot of pleasure and company and happiness.”

A team of researchers analysed the activities of Australians aged over 84 to see how they affected their emotional experience.

“What we found was those meaningful activities, the things that had a greater sense of personal meaning for the study were also associated with better quality of emotion,” lead author Tim Windsor told the ABC.

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Using data from the Australian Daily Life Time-Sampling module of the Australian Longitudinal Study of Ageing, the researchers studied the impact of leisure, domestic, physical and cognitive activities on older Australians’ emotions.

The activities that produced the most positive emotions were those people thought were important.

These could include activities such as knitting, exercise, housework, reading and volunteering.

Social sport was among the activities that produced positive emotional experiences for older people.

But activities that were too challenging produced negative emotions.

“That’s not to say that we should be avoiding challenging activities altogether as we get older, but we just need to find that right balance so that we’re doing enough to stay engaged, that allow us to stay physically active but just not to a point where it’s going to overburden us and create problems,” says Associate Professor Windsor.

Increasing lifespans of people around the world, especially in Australia, make these findings particularly important, say the researchers.

“People recognise emotional wellbeing as being really central to wellbeing in general,” says Assoc. Prof. Windsor.

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At any age, the pursuit of happiness and health is a popular endeavour, but fraught, says psychologist Lisa Williams.

Despite ample advice from experts, individuals regularly engage in activities that may only have short-term benefit for wellbeing, or even backfire.

“The search for the heart of wellbeing has been the focus of decades of research,” she says.

Findings reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences try to address what it is to find meaning in life, including the extent you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile and what advantage having a strong sense of meaning in life afford down the road.

The data revealed that individuals reporting a higher sense of meaning in life had a lower risk of divorce, lower risk of living alone and increased connections with friends and social and cultural engagement.

It also led to lower incidence of chronic disease and onset of depression, lower obesity, increased physical activity and adoption of positive health behaviours.

Overall, those with a higher sense of meaning in life lived longer, healthier, happier lives.

According to Ms Williams, the definition of having a meaningful life comprises three central components:

  • purpose: having goals and direction in life
  • significance: the degree to which a person believes his or her life has value, worth, and importance
  • coherence: the sense that one’s life is characterised by predictability and routine.

Meaningful living researcher Michael Steger has also developed an interactive Meaning in Life Questionnaire, which captures whether you feel your life has purpose, significance and coherence as well as your desire to find meaning in life.

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Practising mindfulness is another meaningful activity being increasingly adopted by older Australians.

Healthy ageing researchers at Flinders University have also found that more older people use mindfulness as a means to improve happiness and wellbeing in their later years.

Certain characteristics of mindfulness are more evident in older people than younger people.

“This suggests that mindfulness may naturally develop with time and life experience,” says Assoc. Prof. Windsor.

“The significance of mindfulness for wellbeing may also increase as we get older, in particular the ability to focus on the present moment and to approach experiences in a non-judgemental way.

“These characteristics are helpful in adapting to age-related challenges and in generating positive emotions.”

The Flinders University survey found that focusing on the present moment and restraining judgement may become especially important for wellbeing in later years.

“The ability to appreciate the temporary nature of personal experiences may be particularly important for the way people manage their day-to-day goals across the second half of life,” says study lead author Leeann Mahlo.

“We found that positive relationships between aspects of mindfulness and wellbeing became stronger from middle age onwards.”

Which meaningful activities do you engage in? What are your tips for living a longer, happier life? Why not share your suggestions in the comments section below?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.