Dread. That’s the word that comes to mind for many people when they think about growing old. But new scientific research suggests that the reality of aging can (surprisingly) be captured by a totally different word: happiness.
I was delighted to see that The Economist’s feature article last week (The U-bend of Life, December 18th issue) was on the joy of aging. Many studies have shown that while many people fear growing old, they are likely to be happier after they mature past middle age. For instance, David Blanchflower (professor of economics at Dartmouth College) and Andrew Oswald (professor of economics at Warwick Business School) studied the happiness of people in 72 countries. They found that people (on average) in the majority of countries are unhappiest in their late 40s. After that, people grow to feel increasingly happier and more satisfied with their lives.
No one really knows why this happens. And I don’t pretend to have the answers either, but I do have a few ideas — some of which were also discussed in The Economist article. One is that, with age, people are not as pulled by daily stresses that need immediate attention (such as demanding children or demanding careers). So, they are freer to think about their lives with perspective – something that can also come naturally with age and experience. As a result, older people are more likely to keep their priorities straight and give attention to the things that matter most. And, this bodes well for maintaining a sense of well-being.
Also, people frequently mellow with age. They are less angry, less concerned about how other people live their lives, and less caught up in being compelled to make everyone like them. Not only do these things feel better by themselves, but they also help people to maintain better relationships; which help people live happier lives. And I would imagine that those who have healthy relationships fare better than those who are alone or in unhealthy relationships.
Finally, as people begin to measure their lives by the amount of time they have left here on earth, they are often motivated to come to peace with their lives. They work to let go of disappointments and regrets (or at least focus on them less). And, by doing this, they are freer to enjoy life’s blessings and embrace the moment. Even the grief that comes with the death of loved ones can be eased by an acceptance of their sadness – they can move through the sadness, finding space in their hearts for the joys of life, as well.
Of course, none of this is a sure thing. There are unhappy old people just as there are unhappy young ones. And, aging does come with declining health and mental acuity. People also experience more deaths of loved ones the longer they live. Nevertheless, the benefits of aging cannot be denied. And, I think we would all do well to update our stereotype of aging as an unhappy decline to a more accurate one of aging as a time of general satisfaction and happiness.
What do you think?
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