Practice your coping mechanisms now

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022

Arthur C. Brooks recommends seven habits that lead to happiness in old age:

Happiness tends to decline throughout young adulthood and middle age, bottoming out at about age 50. After that, it heads back up again into one’s mid-60s. Then something strange happens. Older people split into two groups as they get old: those getting much happier, and those getting much unhappier.

Right around this same time of life, many people realize the importance of having made good financial decisions in their earlier decades. Those who planned ahead and saved up are more likely to be able to support themselves in comfort; many of those who didn’t, can’t. Something similar happens with happiness, as I show in my new book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life.

Each of us has something like a “Happiness 401(k)” that we invest in when we are young, and that we get to enjoy when we are old.


The best off are the “happy-well,” who enjoy good physical health as well as good mental health and high life satisfaction. On the other end of the spectrum are the “sad-sick,” who are below average in physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.


Using data from the Harvard study, two researchers showed in 2001 that we can control seven big investment decisions pretty directly: smoking, drinking, body weight, exercise, emotional resilience, education, and relationships.


Practice your coping mechanisms now. The earlier you can find healthy ways to deal with life’s inevitable distresses, the more prepared you’ll be if ill luck strikes in your 80s. This means working consciously — perhaps with assistance from spiritual practices or even therapy — to avoid excessive rumination, unhealthy emotional reactions, or avoidance behavior.


Do the work to cultivate stable, long-term relationships now. For most people, this includes a steady marriage, but other relationships with family, friends, and partners can fit in this category as well. The point is to find people with whom you can grow, whom you can count on, no matter what comes your way.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    I did all those things. The results were… mixed. The devil’s in the details. Most of these things can backfire on you if you’re not careful how you go about them.

    The only thing that has consistently paid off for me is a blend of empiricism, pragmatism and cynicism. The more cynical I am, the better my life gets. Suck it, idealists.

  2. Gavin Longmuir says:

    “The best off are the ‘happy-well,’ who enjoy good physical health as well as good mental health and high life satisfaction.”

    Which way does causality run? Could it be that those with a naturally happy disposition are more likely to eat right, exercise, be productive — all things that reinforce their good health, which in turn reinforces their natural happy disposition? While those who naturally have an unhappy disposition (we have all met people like that) experience the reverse — over-eating, under-exercising, gaining weight and becoming unhealthy and even more unhappy?

    Are happy-well people (and sad-sick) born or made?

  3. Harry Jones says:

    Gavin, it’s complicated. Different people have different health needs. I would never tell a paraplegic to take up skiing, but there are those who would.

    It’s a necessary methodological assumption that you have some power to improve your lot by changing what you do. Then fill in the details.

    What worked for me was experimenting on myself. Try different changes, keep track, measure results.

    Example: black pepper in my coffee helps me lose weight. I’m not saying it will work for anyone else. For all I know, I’m the only one on the planet that this works for. But it works for me, so I’m doing it.

  4. Bomag says:

    “…we can control seven big investment decisions pretty directly…”

    Would be nice if society around us would provide support.

    Relationships are plenty crushed by the modern world; education is thrown at us to the point of counter-production; emotional resilience now comes from a pill bottle; exercise is possible, but sedation is coin of the realm; we’re practically tube-fed food and drink. Smoking does get some structural proscription.

  5. Harry Jones says:

    I don’t look to society to prop me up. I’ll be happy if it just stays out of my way.

    It used to be everybody wanted to be my frenemy, but I eventually figured out how not to attract those people. The key is never look to others for support.

  6. Bomag says:

    “The key is never look to others for support.”

    To a point. But we are swimming in a large body of water with a flow. Some swim better against the flow than others.

  7. Harry Jones says:

    I went through a phase of my life when I swam against the flow, because I didn’t like where the flow was headed.

    Nowadays I swim at right angles, hoping to reach the shore. It’s gotten me to slightly better places.

    I’m more of an anarch than a rebel. True freedom begins within.

  8. Bomag says:

    “…avoid excessive rumination, unhealthy emotional reactions, or avoidance behavior.”

    No more internet for me!

  9. Altitude Zero says:

    Yeah, yeah, quit smoking, quit drinking, and eat a plant-based diet. I quit reading right there.

  10. Jim says:

    Altitude Zero: “Yeah, yeah, quit smoking, quit drinking, and eat a plant-based diet. I quit reading right there.”


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