Your Secret to Happiness at Every Age
Making the best of every decade
When life's curveballs leave you stressed and depressed, how do you get back on your game? Easy: Try these age-specific mood lifters.
Your 30s: Eat to beat PMS
Nearly 9 in 10 women suffer at least one PMS symptom each month, and those in their 30s are often hit the hardest. You can avoid irritability by eating more foods containing tryptophan, an amino acid that helps your body make the "happy" hormone serotonin, says Beth Hamilton, MD, an ob-gyn in Newport Beach, Calif., and co-author of So Stressed: The Ultimate Stress-Relief Plan for Women. Turkey, chicken, salmon, and nuts all contain meaningful amounts of tryptophan.
Your 30s: Just say no
Many women are neck-deep in career-building during this decade. The unhappy side effect? Killer work stress. Get off the hamster wheel by avoiding automatic "yes" responses to requests that catch you off guard, says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, a book chronicling the year that Rubin spent test-driving scientific research and popular wisdom about how to be happy. If saying "yes" makes sense, fine, but being choosy helps you avoid the powerless feeling that leads to burnout.
Your 30s: Get babied
The 30s are prime time for bringing a little bundle of joy into the world—but pregnant women and new moms often feel depressed and overwhelmed. The good news: Massage seems to help by decreasing stress hormones. A recent study from the University of Miami showed that pregnant women at risk for postpartum depression had a lower incidence if their partners gave them massages twice a week during the pregnancy. Earlier research found that massage can also prevent the milder mood troubles suffered by most new moms. So don't be afraid to ask for it—often.
Your 40s: Act happy
The growing field of positive psychology explores how to lead happier, more fulfilling lives (as opposed to treating psychological disorders). One key finding: "We become how we act," says Christopher Peterson, PhD, a professor at the University of Michigan and author of A Primer in Positive Psychology. Translation? Make a concerted effort to be warm and smiley, and you'll beat back bad moods.
Your 40s: Safeguard sleep
Depression spikes for women in their 40s, according to Ali Domar, PhD, director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Boston—and sleep trouble linked to hormone swings is a culprit for many of us. It’s a vicious cycle: Night sweats and hot flashes keep you up, and the ensuing fatigue hikes depression and stress, which can worsen the night sweats. You can break the pattern by doing a cardio workout—anything you find fun—at least three times a week. Don't give up if you don't get an instant mood boost: The benefits kick in only after you've stuck with it for a while.
Your 40s: Go it alone
About 46 million American women care for an elderly, ill, or disabled family member. Those caregivers' average age? Forty-eight. The job can play havoc with your emotions and mean you're often last on your own list. Rejuvenate with alone time. "Wake up a half-hour before everyone else, take time for yourself after everyone leaves for work or school, or spend your lunch hour alone a couple of days a week," says Barbara Ann Kipfer, author of The Field Guide to Happiness for Women.
Your 50s: Beat belly blues
Many women find belly fat increasingly difficult to fight at midlife—and studies show that this kind of fat is linked to depression around the time of menopause. Plus, other research shows that anxiety and depression can in turn double a woman's risk of gaining weight as she ages. Break the cycle by eating more whole grains, low-fat dairy, beans, and vegetables—they fill you up so you're less tempted to drown your sorrows in high-fat, high-calorie foods. And exercise for at least 30 minutes every day.
Your 50s: Help your hormones
Less estrogen may mean a thinner-skinned, dryer vagina, soreness, and painful sex—all of which leave many women unhappy and anxious, according to a recent study from San Francisco State University. Sound familiar? Discuss hormone therapy with your doctor to see if it might bring you relief, as well as whether you're a good candidate.
Your 50s: Bust your rut
Your 50s are a fantastic time to shake things up, especially if you're feeling bored or restless. Get involved with a cause close to your heart, study a subject that intrigues you, or learn a new skill—and don't give up: A recent study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies shows that even when a steep learning curve (like when you flub that salsa step in dance class) is stressful in the short-term, hanging in there pays off in greater happiness down the line.