6 Secrets to Staying Happy–and Sharp

Can lifting your spirits boost your brain power? Here are six simple ways to lighten your mood and enhance your memory.

If you're happy and you know it… you make better decisions and remember more.

That's what a new study reports after older adults were observed doing significantly better on tests of decision-making and working memory when their mood was boosted. “Given the current concern about cognitive decline in the aged, our findings are important for showing how simple methods to improve mood can help improve cognitive functioning and decision performance in older adults, just like they do in younger people," said Ellen Peters, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at Ohio State University. Here are a few steps you can take to a happier, sharper life.

Jump around for smiles, and increased strength.

Who can jump around without smiling? A recent NASA study showed that trampoline activity improved coordination, muscular strength and endurance, lung and cardio capacity, bilateral motor skills, rhythm, lymphatic circulation, and more. Light jumping on the trampoline is perfect for seniors, says Jeff Platt, CEO of SkyZone, a trampoline center. "Starting out, we would suggest that seniors take it slow, and even go with a family member or friend who can help them adjust to the trampoline and develop their balance."

Be kind, and you'll gain a quarter more happiness.

Random acts of kindness, like knitting a blanket to donate, baking a dessert for a neighbor, or buying someone a cup of coffee or tea can make you not only happier, but sharper, explains Erena DiGonis, a licensed social worker and health coach who works with thousands of seniors across New York City and Long Island. “Since depression and stress involve a focus on the inner world, focusing on others shifts our thinking,” says DiGonis. There’s also a biochemical explanation as well, she continues. “The feel-good hormones in the brain, such as oxytocin, get activated.” That can account for almost a quarter more happiness in your life, says Robert Emmons, Ph.D. and author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. “We found that when people chronically focus on what they have to be grateful for, a transformation in their awareness occurs, and they become somewhere between 20 and 25 percent happier.”

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Act like a clown, and increase your brain's gray matter.

Well, not a clown per se, but if you take up juggling, it can be an awesome mood-booster, says Heather Wolf, an ACE-certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor who teaches juggling to seniors and is the founder of JuggleFit in New York City. “It clears the mind because it requires focus and makes you forget about everything else,” she says. It’s exceptional for seniors because, according to The Journal of Neuroscience, it increases gray matter in the brain, which is involved in muscle control and sensory perception—such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, and speech. Not to mention that mastering a new goal-based skill will provide a sense of accomplishment, adds Wolf. Oh, and don’t forget–you’ll be a hit at parties!

Find new friends, and you'll instantly improve your outlook.

People of like mind typically tend to associate with one another, so if one day you find yourself in a room of nine moody people, guess who the 10th one might be? “Choosing new friends is a way to abruptly and effectively find new fresh air and perspective,” advises Ernest Troth, a 50+ business owner with a newfound triathlon habit, thanks to an expansion of his friendship circle five years ago. People who have an upbeat, positive, and energetic outlook tend to associate with each other, so finding even one such new friend will quickly bring about a happier outlook, which can absolutely enhance your focus. “Your new friend's friends are probably also of positive mind; they likely are getting outside, participating in sports, volunteering, and doing non-moody activities,” adds Troth. And yes, you can keep some of your old friends–your new perspective can be useful to boosting their moods as well!

Get enough of “Nature’s Antidepressant” and your mood soars.

That's what Sheldon S. Zinberg, M.D., calls exercise. Every time your muscles contract they release IGF-1, also known as insulin growth factor. Via the circulation, IGF travels to the brain and encourages the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which encourages the growth of neurons and neural connections–a likely mechanism for improving and maintaining cognitive abilities. Also, exercise causes the release of endorphins, wonderful chemicals within our bodies that are mood-elevating giants. The best exercise for seniors is that of moderate intensity for 150 minutes or more per week, explains Zinberg, who serves as chairman and president of Nifty after Fifty, fitness and wellness centers developed for those ages 50+ (the oldest member is 96). He recommends strength or resistance training two to three times a week and aerobic training three to five times a week, with stretching and balancing practiced everyday.

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Stay connected to keep the blood flowing.

Edmond Dougherty, director of engineering entrepreneurship at Villanova University's College of Engineering, attributes his focused happiness to the iPad that he keeps on the floor beside his bed. “When I wake, I open it, check the top news stories, weather, and any new overnight emails. This usually takes about five minutes, but I can feel the blood rushing to my brain, upper body, and arms,” he says. The assistant professor in Villanova’s Electrical and Computer Engineering department says that the process not only clears his head and orients him, but it’s very calming. “I think it’s because before I get up, I know the general state of the world and there is no reason for me to rush. It makes me happier because with that simple act, I feel ready and excited to face the world and the day ahead,” says Dougherty.

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