As you age your strength weakens, your world becomes smaller, and you can no longer do many of the things that once gave you pleasure.
However, as it turns out, happiness is still strong and by your side – often even more than it used to be.
In many ways our younger and middle years work as a training period for the unexpected joys of being older, Alan D. Castel from the University of California, Los Angeles, says in his new book, Better With Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging. In a study conducted back in 2006 he cites, a group of people aged 30 to 70-years-old were asked which of the two age categories was likely to feel happier. They both chose the 30 group. But when they were asked about how happy they felt individually, the 70-year-olds reported greater levels of happiness.
Researchers from different fields have long been intrigued by such findings – that aging is a time characterized by sadness, dread, and many regrets but rather by serenity, gratitude and inner fulfillment.
Researchers investigating the happy aging phenomenon attribute it to many things: older people become experts in “terror management theory” or “constructive distraction” or “voluntary affirmation of the obligatory.”
In simpler terms, they think: I will die? So what? In the meantime, I’ve got my children and grandchildren around me.
But the miserable youngster is just as surprising as the happy oldster, Jonathan Rauch says in his book The Happiness Curve. Satisfaction with life seems to follow a U-shaped path, with its highest peaks in childhood, when the world is a giant carnival, and in old age, we have ridden on all the rides hundreds of times and are perfectly happy with simply watching.
Our productivity and potential are the strongest when we are in our 40s and 50s, and this is also where we should be feeling our happiest.
The U-shaped phenomenon is cross-cultural and is not affected by levels of income, studies have shown. And it isn’t a surprise. Firstly all that strength and productivity require a lot of effort to maintain, and it comes at the same time when pressures from other responsibilities are the greatest – raising children, paying their tuition, and paying the house mortgage. Your evaluative happiness (how your life would be like in terms of achievements, wealth, and a strong family) can be vastly different from your affective happiness (how you feel in reality). A life that appears happy on the outside is not necessarily felt as happy.
Later in life this changes in many ways. Firstly, coming to terms with the thought that you may never achieve a long-fought-for goal can be a positive experience.
After struggling in vain to make partner or succeed as an entrepreneur, the day you accept you no longer need to try comes as a blessing.
There is also what Rauch characterizes as an elder’s ability to normalize crises.
Life can be a string of experimental tornadoes, both good and bad – falling in and out of love, getting married, divorced, a new job, the loss of a job, – and each one of them feels overwhelming when first experienced. But there are only so many crises that can be hurled at you before you understand that they all eventually pass and you’ll most likely be left damaged but nevertheless still standing.
And then comes wisdom.
Since the beginning of time, evolution has forced every species that hopes to stay alive to manage its resources with care. This means that food and other goods go to the breeders, warriors, hunters, builders, planters, and of course, the children, with not much left for the elderly, who are often seen as consumers more than contributors. However, even before the inventions of modern medicine began extending people’s lives, ordinary families were including grandparents and even great-grandparents. This is because what the elderly consume materially, they tend to give back behaviorally- providing aid in the form of wisdom to those around them.
In a different study cited in Better With Age, CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies – aged 50 to 70 – had lower scores on lab-based tests of processing and reasoning speed than younger people. And yet, all the CEOs, regardless of age, were in charge of stable and extremely profitable companies. It was obvious: something more than the ability to process loads of data played as a contributor to heir success.
In the early stages of life, wisdom can seem out of reach. But for those who were able to pick its fruits, Castel writes, “often wisdom allows people to see the obvious, or to use common sense without second-guessing themselves or the outcomes.”
Sure, death is unavoidable – something that can only be delayed, but never avoided. But it is a blessing, then, that when we do reach the final moment of our lives, many of us arrive there wiser, more at peace and even smiling.
How do you feel about this research from a personal perspective? Let us know in the comment section below, and don’t hesitate to share with your friends and family.