empty nest guide to happiness

The Empty Nest Guide to Happiness

Approximately 27% of empty nesters report feeling unhappy or experiencing significant distress after their children leave home. This period can be marked by feelings of loss, loneliness, and even depression, commonly referred to as “empty nest syndrome” (Psychology Today) (Choosing Therapy) We have addressed the issue of ’empty nest syndrome’ in a previous article.

These emotional challenges highlight the need for parents to find new purposes and activities to fill the void left by their children’s departure. Engaging in hobbies, social activities, or new career pursuits can help mitigate these feelings and contribute to overall well-being during this transitional phase (Psychology Today) (Choosing Therapy).

A Professional Opinion on Happiness

Professor Laurie Santos, a Yale University psychology professor, focuses on teaching scientifically backed strategies for enhancing happiness and well-being. Here are some of her key insights:

  1. Misconceptions About Happiness: Santos emphasizes that many commonly held beliefs about what brings happiness, such as achieving more wealth or career success, are often misguided. She points out that beyond a certain level of financial security, additional income doesn’t significantly boost happiness. Instead, prioritizing social connections, mindfulness, physical activity, rest, and leisure time is more effective for mental well-being (Verywell Mind) (Coursera).
  2. Evidence-Based Techniques: Through her popular course “The Science of Well-Being” and her podcast “The Happiness Lab,” Santos teaches evidence-based techniques for improving happiness. These include practicing gratitude, savoring positive experiences, fostering social connections, and engaging in acts of kindness. Her work underscores the importance of small, daily actions in building long-term happiness (Dr. Laurie Santos) (Dr. Laurie Santos).
  3. Mental Health Awareness: Santos started her course “Psychology and the Good Life” to address the mental health challenges she observed among her students. The course became the most popular in Yale’s history, highlighting the widespread need for better mental health strategies. It has since been made available online to reach a broader audience, with millions of participants benefiting from her teachings (Verywell Mind).

Putting the Tools Into Practice

The term “rewirement” was coined by Professor Santos as part of her course on happiness at Yale University.

The concept is introduced in a light-hearted manner, contrasting it with traditional course requirements.

“Rewirements” are practical exercises designed to help students rewire their habits and behaviors based on scientific findings to improve their happiness and well-being. These practices are aimed at creating positive, lasting changes in one’s mindset and daily routines

Let’s take a look at these exercises.

Social connection

In our modern world, we can all feel connected to the world around us through technology. But, that type of connection rarely feels as authentic as those connections that we have in real life and in real-time. Whether it is in family settings, church environments, or over coffee, our real-world connections allow us to find a greater sense of connection and happiness.

Social connectedness plays a crucial role in enhancing an individual’s happiness and overall well-being. Research consistently shows that people who have strong social connections are happier, healthier, and live longer compared to those who are socially isolated.

  1. Health Benefits: Social connections have been found to increase survival odds by 50%. They contribute to both physical and mental health, reducing risks of conditions such as depression, anxiety, and even cardiovascular diseases. Being part of a supportive social network provides emotional support, which can mitigate stress and promote resilience (Harvard School of Public Health) (Social Connectedness).
  2. Psychological Well-being: Engaging in meaningful social interactions fulfills fundamental psychological needs for relatedness and belonging, which are critical for eudaimonic well-being—the sense of purpose and meaning in life. Social connectedness fosters feelings of acceptance and support, leading to higher life satisfaction and happiness (Frontiers) (Greater Good).
  3. Community and Societal Impact: On a broader scale, social connectedness enhances community resilience and cohesion. It improves public health and economic prosperity by promoting collective well-being and reducing the negative impacts of social isolation, such as increased healthcare costs and lower productivity (Harvard School of Public Health) (Social Connectedness).

Overall, the evidence underscores that fostering social connections is essential for personal and communal well-being. Efforts to improve social connectedness, both on individual and societal levels, can significantly enhance overall happiness and quality of life.


Often we are told that ‘self-care’ is the key to happiness. But, many studies show that a person needs more than that to create a deeper sense of real happiness.

Self-care (Hedonic Well-Being) is essential for maintaining personal mental and emotional health, and it provides the emotional resources needed to help others and manage daily stressors effectively. Engaging in self-care activities tends to enhance hedonic well-being, which is related to feelings of pleasure and immediate happiness.

Helping Others (Eudaimonic Well-Being) has been found to increase feelings of empathy, moral virtue, and connectedness, which contribute to long-term happiness. Research suggests that altruistic behavior can lead to greater personal happiness than self-focused behaviors, primarily because it fosters a sense of relatedness and satisfaction from making a positive impact on others’ lives.


Changing your focus to gratitude can significantly improve your happiness and overall well-being through several mechanisms:

  1. Enhances Positive Emotions: Practicing gratitude increases the frequency of positive emotions like joy, enthusiasm, and love. This shift in focus from negative to positive aspects of life can lead to a more optimistic outlook and greater life satisfaction. Studies have shown that gratitude helps reduce feelings of envy and resentment, allowing individuals to appreciate the good things in their lives more fully (Greater Good) (Verywell Mind).
  2. Improves Mental Health: Gratitude has been linked to reductions in anxiety and depression. By focusing on what one is thankful for, individuals can experience fewer negative thoughts and emotions. This practice can lead to improved self-esteem and resilience, making it easier to cope with stress and adversity (Psychology Today).
  3. Strengthens Relationships: Expressing gratitude can enhance relationships by promoting feelings of connection and mutual appreciation. When individuals acknowledge and thank others for their kindness and support, it fosters a sense of trust and strengthens social bonds. This, in turn, can lead to a more supportive and fulfilling social network (Psychology Today).
  4. Promotes Physical Health: Gratitude has been associated with better physical health outcomes, including improved sleep quality, lower blood pressure, and a stronger immune system. The positive emotions generated by gratitude can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, leading to overall better health (Verywell Mind).
  5. Increases Life Satisfaction: Long-term studies have shown that people who regularly practice gratitude report higher levels of life satisfaction and happiness. This effect is partly due to the cumulative impact of frequent positive emotions and improved social interactions. Over time, gratitude helps individuals build a more positive and fulfilling outlook on life (Greater Good) (Psychology Today).

Overall, incorporating gratitude into daily life through practices such as keeping a gratitude journal, writing gratitude letters, or simply acknowledging and appreciating the positive aspects of life can lead to lasting improvements in happiness and well-being.


Savoring the moment is a powerful practice that enhances mental and emotional well-being, leading to increased happiness. Here’s how it works and the supporting evidence:

  1. Amplifies Positive Emotions: Savoring involves focusing on and enhancing the positive aspects of experiences. By doing so, individuals can prolong and intensify feelings of joy and satisfaction. This practice helps shift attention away from negative thoughts and emotions, thereby improving overall mood and outlook on life. Research has shown that savoring can boost positive affect and decrease negative affect, contributing to greater life satisfaction (Psychology Today) (BioMed Central).
  2. Reduces Stress and Anxiety: When individuals practice savoring, they become more present and mindful of the positive moments in their lives. This mindfulness can reduce stress and anxiety by promoting a sense of calm and contentment. A study involving online savoring interventions during the COVID-19 pandemic found that participants who engaged in savoring reported higher levels of life satisfaction and lower levels of depression compared to those who did not (BioMed Central).
  3. Enhances Mental Resilience: Savoring helps build mental resilience by reinforcing the ability to find and appreciate positive experiences even during challenging times. This practice fosters a positive mindset, which can serve as a buffer against stress and adversity. By regularly reflecting on positive moments, individuals can develop a more optimistic and resilient outlook (PositivePsychology.com).
  4. Improves Relationships: Savoring can also enhance social connections by promoting gratitude and appreciation for others. Sharing positive experiences with loved ones or reflecting on meaningful interactions can strengthen bonds and increase feelings of social support. This social aspect of savoring contributes to overall well-being and happiness (Psychology Today) (PositivePsychology.com).
  5. Promotes Long-Term Happiness: The benefits of savoring are not just immediate but can accumulate over time. Regularly engaging in savoring practices can lead to lasting improvements in mood and emotional well-being. Studies have found that savoring can have long-term effects on happiness by fostering a positive and appreciative mindset (Psychology Today) (BioMed Central).

Incorporating savoring into daily life can be as simple as taking a few moments to enjoy that cup of coffee, reflect on a positive experience, sharing your favorite part of the day with someone, or practicing gratitude. These small but intentional actions can significantly enhance mental and emotional health, leading to a more fulfilling and happy life.


Exercise (even 20 minutes of movement) significantly increases happiness through various physiological and psychological mechanisms:

  1. Release of Brain Chemicals: Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, often known as “feel-good” hormones, which improve mood and create a sense of well-being. Additionally, physical activity increases the production of other mood-enhancing chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters play a crucial role in regulating mood and reducing feelings of depression and anxiety (mindbodygreen) (Cleveland Clinic).
  2. Reduction of Stress Hormones: Regular physical activity helps lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This reduction leads to decreased stress and a more relaxed state of mind, contributing to overall emotional stability and happiness (Create Your Happy) (Mayo Clinic).
  3. Improved Brain Function and Structure: Exercise promotes the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with memory, learning, and emotions. This neurogenesis can lead to improved cognitive function and emotional regulation, enhancing long-term emotional stability and happiness (mindbodygreen).
  4. Enhanced Self-Esteem and Confidence: Engaging in regular exercise can improve self-esteem and body image, leading to higher confidence levels. Achieving fitness goals and seeing physical improvements can provide a significant boost to one’s self-worth and overall happiness (Cleveland Clinic).
  5. Better Sleep Quality: Physical activity is linked to improved sleep quality, which is essential for emotional and mental health. Better sleep helps regulate mood, reduce stress, and enhance overall well-being (Mayo Clinic).
  6. Social Interaction and Support: Participating in group exercises or sports can provide social interaction and support, which are crucial for mental health. Building social connections through exercise can lead to increased feelings of belonging and happiness (Create Your Happy).

In summary, the combination of biochemical, physiological, and social benefits derived from regular exercise contributes to a significant increase in happiness and overall mental well-being. Engaging in activities you enjoy and maintaining a consistent exercise routine can help sustain these benefits over time.

What is Your Happiness Secret?

As we conclude this guide to finding happiness as an empty nester, we invite you to reflect on what brings you joy and fulfillment during this transformative phase of life. Whether it’s through self-care, engaging in new hobbies, helping others, staying physically active, or savoring each moment, the journey to happiness is unique for everyone.

Share your happiness secret with us and join the conversation. Let’s build a community where we can support and learn from each other on our paths to a fulfilling and joyful life.

Disclaimer: If you are experiencing extreme depression or emotional pain, please seek the support of a trained professional who can provide the support and treatment you need. While this guide offers tips for finding happiness, it is not a substitute for professional mental health care. Be good to yourself.

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