As We Age, We Become Happier
Yes, it is true – we are happier as we age. There is mounting evidence from research showing us that this is a truth. I think we need to embrace the information and consider if it is part of our own experience. The statement surprised me, leading me to do a deep dive into this information. It started with a book I recently read, The Inside Story by Susan Sands. (Sands, 2022) The subtitle, The Surprising Pleasures of Living in an Aging Body is what really caught my attention. It was refreshing to see a book carry optimistic ideas and facts about aging.
We usually hear about how much the “Golden Years” are NOT the Golden Years. We know that with aging comes changes in our body, possible illnesses, and losses on many levels. Perhaps we aren’t getting both sides of the story. Spending time focusing on what benefits we encounter with aging may allow us to step into this time of our lives with the grace we have earned from living life. Certainly, have some benefits. I plan to dig into these facts in the next few newsletter articles. It is certainly worth opening the mind to this perspective.
Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, has studied the effects on the well-being of extended lifetimes. She wrote the book, A Long Bright Future, in which she discusses how people can prepare for healthy, fulfilling, and financially stable long lives. She is concerned that we accept longer lives within society with complacency. She believes longer lives will improve the quality of life at all ages if we live with this in mind. We have doubled the length of life in a short period of time. Although there are challenges that come with aging, her research has found that it is hardly a downward spiral. (Carstensen, 2011) (Sands, 2022)
Let’s start with where some of these broad statements of happiness increasing in older age come from. Research from the University of Chicago study presented what is now called the “U-curve of happiness,” which shows that we are happiest in our younger years (before our 20s) and older years (after age 55). The research shows that happiness begins to decrease beginning in our twenties and then begins to increase sharply after age 54, with age 82 being the happiness peak. Think about this. If we can get past the myths and preconceived thoughts about ageism, we can make some sense of these findings. In the world of 20 something-year-old’s, they are trying to find their footing in life, not sure where they are going or if they are going to arrive, yet making decisions about their future. This group is the most depressed and stressed out of any age group. This was not a small study. It was a three-decade-long research study, and the findings held true across 72 countries. (Yang, 2008)
Carstensen talks about this research and states that the happiness definition is really about life satisfaction. The research shows that aging brings increased knowledge and expertise. Emotional aspects of life improve. Older people are happier. They are happier than middle-aged people and by far happier than younger aged people. People over the age of 65 have the most stable and optimistic outlook of all adults. Older people suffer less from depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. They have fewer negative emotions and are better at dealing with emotionally charged conflicts. Carstensen calls this approach a “positivity bias.” This means that older people lean more toward the positive in appraising the relationships and events of their lives. (Carstensen, 2011)
One of these aspects that influence the appraisal of the older person’s life is grounded in the unique ability to monitor time, not just clock time, but lifetime. As we age, we start to be very aware that there is more time behind us and less time in front of us. Attention may shift to savoring the time we have left, perhaps looking for more depth of experience, pruning down our social connections to those that really matter, and noticing positive experiences. We may focus on the sunset that is exquisite rather than the relationship that isn’t going so well. In general, we take less notice of trivial matters, are more open to reconciliation, and focus on more important parts of our life. We tend to be more present, live in the moment, and pursue goals that are meaningful for us. This makes for happier people. As you consider the idea that you may have the best years of your life coming as you age, realize that it is not so much about what is happening in your life but about how you evaluate it, what you focus on, and how you choose to give meaning to the life that you have left to live. We can start that at any point in our lives.
As we age, we gain wisdom in living life this way. Perhaps you can jump-start this process before you age. If you are in this stage of life, now is the time to consider your life in a meaningful way. Notice those positive things. Focus on them. Stay present in your moment. Enjoy your connections.
My next article about aging will address the myths about growing older. There are plenty of them, and these myths plant seeds of doubt and unappealing stereotypes about growing older. Let’s look at the other side and the truth about this stage of our lives.
Works CitedCarstensen, Laura P. (2011). A long bright future. New York: Public Affairs.
Thomas, Michael, Et al. (2016). Paradoxical trend for improvement in mental health with aging: a community-based study of 1546 adults aged 21-100 years. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 77, no.8, 1019-25.
Sands, Susan P. (2022). The inside story. Boulder: Sounds True.
Yang, Y. (2008). Social inequalities in happiness in the United States, 1972 to 2004: an age-period-cohort analysis. American Sociological Review.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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