Positivity Potential

By Catherine DiGiacomo

August 18, 2014 6 min read

At 91 years old, Long Beach, California, resident Fred Dunn is a world traveler. Every year, he and his eldest daughter go on a trip to a new country, from China to the Czech Republic to Egypt. When they return, she makes him a photo book of memories, and then they begin to plan their next trip.

"Here I am, 89 years old on a freakin' camel," he told me, pointing to a photo of him in Egypt, "and by the way, I don't recommend camel rides to anyone!"

When I asked for an interview with Dunn, I was told his response was, "Well, it wouldn't be the first time, and it won't be the last. Bring her over." His positive personality was so robust that I couldn't wait to speak with him. Still, I went into my interview with Dunn thinking that I would ask him my ambiguous question -- "What is the secret to a happy life?" -- that he would give me some sort of flowery response and that the interview then would end. That was before I met Fred Dunn.

I was amazed at his vigor and sheer enthusiasm for life. He is still eager to learn, to explore and to discuss. He was excited to show me dozens of pictures of him in various countries all over the world, including a photo of him eating lunch with a local tribe in Panama. The more we chatted the more impressed I became. What is his secret?

The 2011 Roko Belic documentary, "Happy," looks at happiness and health through a psychological lens and discusses four key behaviors that lead to a healthy, happy life. These behaviors include physical activity, appreciation, a closeness and connectedness to your community, and compassion and service for others. Applying this theory to Dunn, the reasons for his happiness became abundantly clear.

He values family above everything else. "The best thing that ever happened to me is my wife," he began. "One of my biggest accomplishments in life was marrying the most beautiful girl in Long Beach. And I am fortunate enough to have four children, who are all college graduates, and nine lovely grandchildren and one great-grandchild, who all live relatively close and visit a lot."

Dunn also stays active in his community; he has served in the Long Beach City College electrical technology apprenticeship system for 64 years and has sat on a couple of city and federal committees, attending one or two meetings per week.

"I've helped a lot of young people learn a trade that will last them a lifetime," he said with a tone not of pride but of genuine care. He also expressed his concern for the elderly who are taken advantage of and scammed by their own caretakers, being overcharged for services, etc., and explained the increased importance of his role on the city's committee -- especially at his age.

To this day, Dunn stays physically active. He wakes up at 6:30 a.m. every morning to eat his breakfast and then rides his bicycle all over town. He was driving until two years ago, when he stopped driving by choice -- he still has his driver's license -- after an accident. Since then, he's had two cornea transplants to help his vision, each a five-month process because of various complications. Yet he sees himself as fortunate. "I'm fortunate enough to be able to see well again and see my family and see how beautiful you are sitting in front of me," he said. And ... he's a charmer.

It's not a stretch to say that Dunn's positive outlook on life has kept him this happy and healthy, even in times of emotional struggle. According to a 2011 study conducted by Barbara Fredrickson, the Kenan distinguished professor of psychology and principal investigator of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, "positive emotions are vehicles for individual growth and social connection: By building people's personal and social resources, positive emotions transform people for the better, giving them better lives in the future."

So what's the secret to a long, happy, healthy life? Appreciate all the good things, however small; spend time with family; stay physically active; and get involved with your community through service and other outlets. People who do all of those things are likelier to see the glass half full, keep high spirits and generally live a better life.

As I was getting ready to leave, Dunn excitedly told me about his plans to return to Costa Rica this April to ride the zip lines. "The last time I was there, they told me the oldest person who ever rode the cables was 90," he said with a smirk. "So I said, 'Hell, I'll be 92 when I come back.'" How many 92-year-olds do you know who are healthy enough to ride zip lines through the jungles of Costa Rica?

No, Dunn doesn't intend to slow down. In fact, he just added a new member to his immediate family -- a Labrador puppy, named Tucker. As we walked out to the sidewalk, he held Tucker in his arms, saying to me with a chuckle, "I'm going to walk this poodle down my street to meet some ladies. That's how it's done, you know."

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