PUMPING IRONY: To Stay Smart, Get Happy

A new study shows that staying happy can make us geezers smarter.

Most mornings at the office my work is briefly interrupted by a guy I call “Mr. Perfect.” He’s there to pick up and deliver interoffice mail, but his real mission is to convince everyone he encounters that they have it in their power to create their own happiness. And he’s not kidding around.

Ask him, quite innocently, how he’s doing and he’ll tell you, “Perfect. And you’re perfect too!” The first few times this occurs, it feels rather awkward, to be honest, because most of us believe we are routinely saddled with some minor (or major) complaint. But he’ll have none of it. “You are absolutely perfect,” he will assert, and if prompted he’ll walk you through his theory — if you want to be bummed out, you’ll be bummed out; if you want to be joyful, you’ll be joyful. It’s all up to you.

I’m not sure he’s gained many converts among my coworkers, as journalists tend to be a rather cynical bunch, but he and I hit it off right away. The other day, he came into my office, hands outstretched. “I’m holding a divining rod that points only to perfect people,” he announced as he zeroed in on my desk. “That’s amazing,” I replied. “It’s also pointing straight back at you.”

Mr. Perfect, who I’m guessing is slightly older than me, may be a disciple of Norman Vincent Peale, whose Power of Positive Thinking was a bestseller back in the 1950s, but he’s also spreading the gospel of a more recent phenomenon — positive psychology.

Championed by, among others, University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman, positive psychology has shown to be an effective approach to dealing with a wide range of psychological issues, but from a decidedly different angle than conventional psychology. Seligman and other advocates argue that offering people the tools to learn how to be happy may be more helpful than focusing on treating a specific disorder.

I bring all this up because of a study I stumbled upon the other day. Researchers at Ohio State University found that happiness actually boosted the brain power of old guys like me.

“There has been lots of research showing that younger adults are more creative and cognitively flexible when they are in a good mood. But because of the cognitive declines that come with aging, we weren’t sure that a good mood would be able to help older adults,” psychology professor Ellen Peters, coauthor of the study, said in a statement released by the university.

It was a small sample — 46 people ranging in age from 63 to 85 years — but Peters said the results clearly showed that those who were feeling happy easily outperformed their bummed-out counterparts on various cognitive tasks. And that’s good news for us geezers, she said. “Given the current concern about cognitive declines 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.”

I think I’ll pass this on to Mr. Perfect next time I see him. It’s sure to make him smile — as if he needed any encouragement.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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