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The Happiness Curve As You Age

The Happiness Curve As You Age

By Dave Price

We all know the image – a crotchety, cantankerous elderly man or woman, miserably complaining about everything from today’s youth (which in their case consists of anyone under 60) to the fact that TV and music aren’t as good and the sun is not as bright as it used to be “back in my day”. These unhappy faultfinders easily elevate perpetual grumpiness into an art form.

But what if that image, burned into our brain for decades by our worship of youth and all things youthful, is completely wrong? What if things actually get better and people are happier in their later years.

That is the basic premise of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, written by Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Part of the misconception, Rauch discovered in his research for the book, begins with the relatively recent (the phrase was coined in 1965) idea of a midlife crisis, which, if not resolved satisfactorily, unleashes a downward descent ended only by death.

New scientific data, however, indicates that while there is indeed a disappointing realization of achievements not achieved and goals not reached in middle age, most people rebound and actually find their greatest happiness in their later years.

This new idea is being called the Happiness Curve, a U-shaped design that captures the happiness status of most people.

At its simplest, the U Curve reveals that in youth happiness is up; at middle age happiness declines; and in old age happiness bounces back up, in many cases to a more rewarding, realistic sense of contentment than that experienced in younger days.

Scientists have isolated five basic personality traits – neuroticism (a psychological term for expressing the degree to which someone holds the world to be distressing, threatening, and unsafe), extroversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness (how well someone sets and keeps long-range goals, deliberates over choices, doesn’t behave impulsively, and takes obligations to others seriously) – that influence both your personality and your general level of happiness.

One of America’s most prominent psychologists Martin E. P. Seligman has posited a formula for happiness: H=S+C+V. In this formula, H is your level of happiness, S is your set range (the things determined by your genes and your personality), C is the circumstances in your life, and V represents factors you can control. Now however, scientists are seeing that there needs to be a T (for time, or more specifically aging) added to the formula.

Of course, this idea presents a paradox of aging – how could getting older and closer to death make you happier? What scientists are finding out is that many people later in life adopt a philosophy something like “I’m so done with this rat race, false status seeking, and all the material things that don’t matter. Instead I’m going to focus on what’s important like family and friends or just being the kind of person I always wanted to be”.

Also, the T is needed because an older person has much more control over how they spend their time. There is no school, work, or child-rearing responsibilities to dictate what you have to do and when you have to do it (unless you choose to assume such tasks). You are now the manager of your time, a control that usually leads to more self-satisfaction and fulfillment.

Lisa Carstensen, the founder of the Stanford Center of Longevity at Stanford University, says that in today’s world, where longevity is increasing and life is not as hard for most people as it was in the past, researchers are seeing that older people are readjusting their values with age.

Older people are mostly present-oriented, less concerned than the young with the far distant future,” Carstenten wrote in Taking Time Seriously. “Social interactions are navigated carefully in order to ensure that emotional quality (one of the key ingredients in the happiness formula) is high”.

In his book, Rausch offers several factors he found that appear to be driving the happiness curve:

“Living in the present. Taking each day as it comes. Savoring the positive. Dwelling less on the negative. Accepting. Not overreacting. Setting realistic goals. Prioritizing the really important people and relationships in life. These attitudes read like a list of what both modern and ancient wisdom has told us for years about how to find satisfaction if life”.

And the great news for aging Baby Boomers is that these all these attitudes are much easier to cultivate and keep when you are older than they are in youth or middle age.

Rausch points out, however, that there are no guarantees that everyone who reaches their 80s or more will be happy. “Your mileage may vary,” Rausch says. “I am not suggesting that every ninety-four-year-old will be one hundred percent satisfied with everything or that ill health has no emotional consequences or that frailty is fun. I am suggesting that Laura Carstensen is right when she says of aging: ‘Society gets this wrong and individuals get it wrong’”.

Unfortunately, until adjustments are made, the happiness curve is creating a major disconnect since our workplaces, retirement plans, and physical environments are still tailored as if we begin an abrupt plummet into decrepitude in our sixties.

Popular culture tells us that youth is happy and vibrant, the best time of life, and middle age will bring crisis, and then old age will bring functional and emotional decline – when the reality is that youth tends to be a time of challenging emotional extremes, middle age a time of grinding but productive adjustment, and the gray years are generally the happiest of all,” Rausch says.

When asked, Carstensen sums up her current view of her own aging this way: “I seem to be growing more attuned to the sweetness of life than its bitterness. My boat may be battered and the hourglass is emptying, but the river is helping me now.”.

Rausch, after his research and writing, maintains he can now explain the personal upside of the happiness curve in just three words – gratitude comes easier. “That is the hidden gift of the happiness curve. And it is worth the wait,” he says.

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.

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