Whether your musical tastes run to the 70s TV show with the Partridge family singing their theme song, C’mon Get Happy or the 1950s song that inspired it, Get Happy made famous by Judy Garland, the message is that happiness is in our hands – not something we are handed.
When it comes to caring for a loved one, happiness may not be the first emotion that you would associate with a life role that many find overwhelming, frustrating, exhausting and time-consuming. Yet, as I researched more about happiness and how we go about creating the happy factor in our lives, it was apparent that many of the activities associated with caregiving are actually the principles that experts say will make us happier in our lives.
Following are five principles identified by Dr. Ian K. Smith in his book, Happy – Simple Steps to Get the Most Out of Life. I have taken his principles and added my own caregiving take on these tenets along with some tips on enhancing each of these ideas to create the maximum happiness along your caregiving journey.
1. Be kind, do something nice for someone, volunteer
According to the National Alliance for Caregiving 75 percent of caregivers feel they had no choice to become a caregiver – the need was there and they were the one to fill the role. Even if you felt you had no choice – you have volunteered for one of life’s most important roles – caring for a loved one. This is one of the kindest, nicest gifts you can give another person. You are paying it forward for your own care later in life.
Be kind to yourself just like you are kind and caring to your loved one. Take the time to write yourself a thank you letter for everything you do – the patience, the time, the love you are providing. Take this letter out and read it on days when you feel down or like you cannot go on. Congratulate yourself for the wonderful gift of caring – and the gift of volunteering – that you are giving.
2. Strengthen and deepen personal relationships
We know from numerous studies that isolation is bad for our older loved ones – it impacts both their health (such as not eating properly or enough) and their wellness (sometimes leading to depression). By spending quality time with your loved one, you are helping them achieve better happiness. What will take this up one more notch is to talk to them about days gone by. When I would spend time with my grandpa – he loved to talk about his early childhood growing up in Cleveland and riding the wooden roller coaster at Euclid Beach. Nostalgia and legacies are important to our older loved ones and we can learn a lot we may not have known about our family’s history.
The flip side of this happiness principle is carving out time to strengthen your other relationships. What researchers at Harvard University and the University of California at San Diego found is that our friendships actually can improve our happiness quotient. Their study showed that happiness is like a virus that spreads through social networks – your friends’ happiness and even their friends’ happiness can affect (or infect) you. The happiness of a first degree contact friend increases your happiness by 15 percent!
Increase your happiness factor – carve out time to grab a coffee or go on a walk with a happy friend and feel your spirit uplifted.
3. Develop a spiritual life – practice forgiveness
When we search for deeper meanings in life, believe in a higher power or just understand our and other’s limitations, we are on the path to more happiness in our lives. Numerous studies have shown that our spirituality increases as we age. Forgiving your loved one for their behaviors – whether it is their crankiness, their obstinance or their constant needs – is hard for caregivers. Take these trying times and forgive your loved one because in the end they are probably afraid and that often changes our personalities. For your sake, find an expert that can give you techniques on how to cope so you can maintain your happiness level.
It is important that caregivers find experts: geriatric care managers, your own therapist or support groups that help you find ways to forgive your loved one and forge new ways to deal with them when you get frustrated. In the same way a Weight Watchers meeting group will give you great ideas on how to stay on your diet, caregiving support groups can be terrific experts on coping techniques.
4. Spend money on someone else
This is a little tricky because sacrificing your own financial future is a concern I have for caregivers. A National Alliance for Caregiving study showed that one-half of all caregivers spend 10 percent of their annual salary on care-related costs. While you do not want to go bankrupt while caring for your loved one, feeling good about paying for something your loved one needs can be very satisfying and puts a deposit into your happiness account.
Ensure you talk to your financial planner or accountant about your caregiving responsibilities and especially about what you are spending out of your own pocket so they can help you save your nest egg. It may be that some of these costs can be covered under Medicare or Medicaid or you may even be able to qualify for tax credits if your loved one depends solely on you and other criteria you must meet to claim them as a dependent.
5. Be hopeful (the glass half full form of optimism)
The Mayo Clinic actually did a study tracking participants over a 30-year period and found that the optimists had a 19 percent higher chance of still being alive and that they suffered less from depression. Other studies have shown that optimistic people have less chronic stress because they view setbacks as minor incidents that can be overcome. We know chronic stress is the number one factor that causes caregivers to develop chronic illness — heart disease, cancer, asthma — at twice the rate as the general public according to a study by the Commonwealth Fund.
One of the characteristics of an optimist is the power of their smile – remember how good you feel when someone smiles at you? You inevitably smile back and for a few seconds all seems right with the world. Even though you may be blue or having one of those days – try smiling. It is hard to be mad or sad when you have a smile on your face. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a researcher at the University of California at Riverside who has long studied the health impacts of smiling, finds that people tend to mirror each other. Smiling is truly infectious – it catches on faster than the flu. You will be amazed how happy you are when you just smile.
Charles Schultz, cartoonist and creator of the Peanuts comic strip said “Happiness is a warm puppy and a side of French fries.” I am smiling as I write this (because I agree with him) and I hope you are smiling as you read it. Caregiving can be many things and maybe it can even make you happier.