I see my future whenever I drop into my local coffee shop: A man my age is there almost every time drinking coffee and doing the crossword in the local paper. We nod to each other.

I’ve built a story about him, all conjecture, no verifiable evidence. The myth is this:  He has nothing to fill his life but a morning coffee and the crossword, his only appointment every day. If it is true, I am filled with ennui about my future.

I recently came across a book called Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. The author suggests that, while we are the only animal that thinks about the future, we’re not very good at planning our own future. We are more likely to stumble onto happiness than choose it and go get it.

Gilbert’s advice is simple; we should look to others who have a few more years on us, people who seem to us to be happy, people we admire and may wish to emulate. We should examine their lives and follow their examples as a roadmap to our own happiness. We need do what we did in kindergarten: observe and mimic the person we admired the most, the teacher.

While that may seem simplistic and obvious, I believe that there is merit in the exercise.

I’m not usually a self-help-book reader, though I’ve been through phases when I’ve devoured books about perplexing issues I’ve had to face. Divorce and hitting 40 come to mind.

Mostly I’m a skeptic. I read Iron John by Robert Bly which suggests that if I want to reclaim my manhood after my divorce, I should dance around a big fire under a full moon wearing an animal skin loincloth.  I’ve done some ridiculous things but I’m not about to add that to the list. I don’t mean to single out Bly or others trying to help me meet the exigencies of life with courage, honesty and fortitude. There are too many bogus self-help gurus out there. Finding a good one is like separating the fly shit from the pepper. You have to taste each black spot; by then it’s too late.

Having reached a certain age and looking at big changes ahead, I wanted to see if I could tilt the odds on my future in my favor. If I did the right things would I be more likely to spend my golden years in happiness?

I’m taking Gilbert’s advice and have started to look at people who are a few years older than I am, to examine their lives and search for insight into my future. I know several who have a few years head start and who seem to be happy.

Women ask too many questions; men are loath to ask any beyond name, rank and serial number, so my observations are subjective and anecdotal. I do see some consistent shared traits that seem to provide these people contentedness in their middle years.

Sharing activities with loved ones is key to happiness.

  • All are healthy. They exercise and, while they enjoy sampling the many pleasures life has to offer, they do so in moderation. They take care of themselves; they understand that their health is their most precious asset and the key to everything else. None smoke, few drink, all make exercise a part of their daily lives.
  • All are active. Hemingway called retirement the ugliest word in the language. The men I’m watching have places to go, a purpose and structure in their lives. They have people who depend on them. Some use their hobbies as work. While I don’t understand it, an obsession with golf can be purposeful. I know a man well into his 70s who teaches swimming.
  • All seem satisfied with their lives, all seem to be comfortable in their skin. They don’t spend much time fussing about stuff. They have few worries, fewer complaints and well-grounded expectations. They live within their means.
  • All have built little communities around themselves. They have meaningful relationships with family and friends, men and women, and they nurture those relationships.
  • They are positive and optimistic.

One of the key points of Stumbling on Happiness is simple: We want to control our own destiny. We want to be in charge of our lives. These people have done that. They have shown courage, fortitude and discipline in making choices that allow them control in this phase of their lives. It is simple but I’m sure it is not easy.

Nearing our so-called golden years, we ought to start thinking about how we get to where they are.

Find some winners and stick with them. The results are worth the effort. Mark Twain said: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the things you did do.”