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Dr Happy’s top 10 ways to find happiness after 50

Life can throw some curveballs after 50 – transitioning into retirement can be daunting, coping with children leaving home and friends leaving town can be isolating and our health can start to deteriorate. So how can we look after our wellbeing in the face of these challenges? Author, speaker and scholar Dr Tim Sharp is an internationally renowned leader in the school of positive psychology and has become known as Australia's very own Dr Happy. Here, he reveals his 10 top tips for finding happiness later in life.

1. One of the big factors in wellbeing we know from research is that it is vitally important – particularly post-retirement and after kids leave home – to have meaning and purpose in our life; to have something to get out of bed for every day. Interestingly there are words in other cultures to describe this but we don't have one in the English language, yet this is vital. For many people, this meaning comes from relationships, helping others, giving back to the community and even our drive to have fun and make the most out of life. We'll explore these more in later tips.

2. To function fully and happily we need to look after our physical wellbeing. For most of us there's no real reason why we can't stay fit and healthy right through our life and we know that by doing so, we're likely to raise the quality of our life and live longer. We need to keep our bodies moving and it's very true that the less we do, the less we will be able to do. Use it or lose it, as they say. That doesn't mean you need to head to the gym every day but rather incorporate any movement you are capable of into your daily life.

3. The importance of diet and nutrition sounds pretty obvious but unfortunately we know from the research that in Australia and across the Western world, not enough people eat well. For example, in Australia only about two out of 10 people eat the recommended amount of vegetables every day. And in Australia, we really don't have a good excuse – we have access to such fresh food. This isn't about the hundreds of diets in the media. According to the experts it boils down to a few key points: eating whole, unprocessed food that didn't come in a package; eating mostly vegetables; and having small serves.

4. Getting adequate sleep is vital for wellbeing. For a start, when we're tired it makes these other factors, such as getting exercise, eating well and finding meaning in life, much more difficult. Many people sleep less later in life and according to the experts we need a little less sleep so that's not necessarily a problem but having good quality rest and sleep, and ensuring your sleep isn't disturbed by disorders such as obstructive sleep apnoea, is important.

5. Research reveals that our attitude to life has a great impact on our happiness. We know that optimism – a realistically positive attitude to life, not a Pollyanna approach (e.g. someone optimistic even in the face of adversity) – is correlated with happiness, health and better relationships! One particular application of this specific to older people, then, is their attitude to ageing. We know from research that those people who view ageing as a negative process will perform more poorly. Whereas those who see age as just a number and continue to do as much as they can and focus more on what they can do rather than what they can't, age more positively and maintain higher levels of health and wellbeing. The practice of appreciation and gratitude is a wonderful way to increase positivity.

6. Of course, optimism is difficult when faced with physical illness and even aches and pains – and the reality is once we reach our 70s, 80s and 90s our body does start to suffer. So research has looked into how physical ailments and illness impact our wellbeing. The findings show that the same principle applies: that managing to have a constructive attitude and focussing on what you can do rather than what you can't do, makes not just a massive difference to your mood but also your functioning and healing.

7. Arguably the biggest contributor to positive ageing is fostering and maintaining positive relationships; having a sense of connectedness to people and the community. The flip side is that research is revealing loneliness and isolation is increasingly common and is one of the biggest killers. There is no doubt that as people age their social networks can start to become smaller – you finish work, friends move away, families disperse more than they used to and, later in life, friends pass away. We need to actively protect ourselves against isolation while these things are happening and there are various ways we can do that: keep in touch with old friends, join local clubs, volunteer for an organisation, start and continue hobbies, enrol in a new course etc.

8. It's not something we talk about very often in the west but our feelings about death impact our wellbeing. Death is an inevitable and painful part of life and is more frequently in our lives as we age but we can use that to motivate ourselves to live a fuller life; to make the most of what we've got while we've got it. It also helps to be realistic about death and come to some sort of peace with it. In some cultures and religions, such as Buddhism, people are actively encouraged to meditate upon death and to prepare for it. The way that we look at and cope with the death of loved ones and our own mortality can be very impacting on our life and can be worked on – there are some very good books available on coping with death and grief.

9.Having a sense of fun and play is wonderful for wellbeing. There is an old saying which goes something like 'we don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing'. When I interviewed a number of very positive older people for one of my books – those people who were living a very exciting, fulfilling life way into their 70s and 80s – all of them in their own way still had this remarkable sense of playfulness; they seemed to love life. When people lose that sense of play, as we all do at times, it can be very easy to slip into a mundane existence, which can be hard to come back from. If this is the case, finding something to laugh at – such as a funny movie – can be very therapeutic. That's why the wonderful Clown Doctors in children's hospitals are so effective.

10. When we touch people and animals it releases oxytocin – one of the happy hormones – and yet we often experience physical contact and intimacy less as we age. If this is the case, giving friends and family a hug when you see them and treating yourself to a massage can be very beneficial to wellbeing. Another wonderful way to experience touch is through owning a pet. Research shows that pet owners live longer and the suggestion is that patting our pets calms us and makes us happy.

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