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On Self Help

Happiness at any age

By Caroline Leavitt
Globe Correspondent / April 4, 2010

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Sometimes the pursuit of happiness can feel like a rat race, but a spate of new books can show you better routes to finding your bliss. Journalist Bruce Frankel’s “What Should I Do With the Rest of My Life?’’ ebulliently argues that joy doesn’t have an expiration date. At 53, Frankel got his master’s degree in fine arts and went on to become a poet, and his book is filled with inspiring stories of after-60 successes. From an 89-year-old psychologist to an 87-year-old woman who became America’s oldest park ranger, the stories celebrate people who refused to let illness, stereotypes, and assumptions about aging stop them from realizing their dreams. Our brains are plastic and can change at any age, studies show, and working longer and having a purpose not only can have a profound impact on happiness but can make you feel as if you’ve tapped into a fountain of youth. Even better, this wise and inspiring book hands down an important message: Happiness is abundant at any age, and only you can limit your options.

What if you already know your passion, but it’s getting eaten away by your brain-numbing day job? Most artists know the feeling, compartmentalizing their day into paid work and joy work, and never really feeling legitimate because of it. In “The Artist in the Office,’’ Summer Pierre has prepared a virtual bible for the artist tethered to a day job. Filled with impish illustrations, Pierre’s book packs in tips, tricks, and strategies for staying creative even as you’re making 100 copies of that dry-as-dust annual report. Look at your job differently, Pierre advises, by making a list of all the things it provides for you. Make your commute more fun by chalking drawings on the sidewalk. Or how about taking digital photos of your coworkers’ shoes? Take your lunch hour to write, and increase your sense of well-being by pampering yourself. While Pierre does caution you to take your job seriously (you do want to keep it, after all), her advice helps you make the most of your working hours. And remember, even David Sedaris was a Macy’s holiday elf for a while.

But as Freud said, to be happy, you don’t just need meaningful work, you need love, too, and in “As Time Goes By,’’ journalist and former health editor Abigail Trafford gives a road map for romance in midlife and beyond. Based on interviews she conducted with couples at the Stanford Center for Longevity, Trafford’s book suggests that relationships actually get better with age. Aging, says Trafford, makes you reevaluate your life and your options, creating relationships based more on contentment and acceptance than on the fantasies of youth, and older couples have been found to be happier than younger ones because of it.

Trafford talked to hundreds of men and women, married and single, gay and straight. A 97-year-old man divorces his 89-year-old wife because he still has hope that the rest of his life can be better. An 84-year-old widow meets her soul mate on Match.com and soon marries. It’s never too late, Trafford insists, if you make love a priority, you’re resilient, and you appreciate happiness where you may find it. From dealing with the challenges of retirement, illness, divorce, and remarriage to rediscovering that first love you never forgot, Trafford’s book is an exuberant Valentine to feeling connected at any age.

Women want happiness more than they want thin thighs, discovered Lucy Danziger, editor of Self and co-author of “Nine Rooms of Happiness.’’ Teaming with psychiatrist Catherine Birndorf, she formulated a new way of looking at personal happiness by defining life as a series of rooms, each one correlating to an emotional state. From the basement where all our memories are stored to the bedroom where we deal with issues about love and sex, our emotional houses often keep us stuck in the wrong place. Angry at your spouse for not showing you enough attention? You might be stuck in the basement, grappling with a memory of cold parents, but once you deal with and clean up those basement issues, you’re then free to really relate to your spouse. Filled with case studies, concrete solutions, and an invaluable cheat sheet to help you tackle life’s barriers to being happy, the book is lots of fun. Though the idea of the rooms was sometimes confusing and not as helpful as the authors’ “pearls” (catch phrases to help you cope), this book still proves that being happy is like being fit. You have to work at it, but the results are worth it.

Stress is a sure happiness killer, but the antidote just might be “Pocket Peace’’ by Allan Lokos, founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center in New York City. Lokos brings a calming Buddhist slant to urban angst, doling out creative, easy-as-pie practices (choose a belonging you really like and give it away to discover how you feel about attachment issues) to help soothe your way, offering another great option for turning over new pages in your life.

Caroline Leavitt’s novel “Pictures of You’’ will be published by Algonquin this fall. She can be reached at carolineleavitt.com

WHAT SHOULD I DO WITH THE REST OF MY LIFE?: True Stories of Finding Success, Passion, and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life
By Bruce Frankel
Avery, 304 pp., $26

THE ARTIST IN THE OFFICE: How to Creatively Survive and Thrive Seven Days a Week
By Summer Pierre
Perigee, 128 pp., paperback, illustrated, $13.95

AS TIME GOES BY: Boomerang Marriages, Serial Spouses, Throwback Couples, and Other Romantic Adventures in an Age of Longevity
By Abigail Trafford
Basic, 288 pp., 25.95

THE NINE ROOMS OF HAPPINESS: Loving Yourself, Finding Your Purpose, and Getting over Life’s Little Imperfections
By Lucy Danziger and Catherine Birndorf
Voice, 288 pp., 24.99

POCKET PEACE: Effective Practices for Enlightened Living
By Allan Lokos
Tarcher, 240 pp., paperback, $13.95