If you spend time reading a great deal about the experiences of older people as I do, it doesn’t take long to notice frequent references in the literature about happiness and the elderly and that they are among the happiest of age groups, possibly the happiest.
To most people, this idea is counter-intuitive. When they think of the elderly if at all, they generally imagine bent-over unattractive people shuffling along while leaning on their walkers or riding motorized chairs in Walmart; difficulty hearing and dentures; adult diapers and deeply lined faces; high blood pressure, high cholesterol, arthritis, and heart stents; mental deterioration to go along with the physical; depression and a dozen pills a day; cranky and confused; fretful and forgetful; no romance and no sex; not many years left to live. A truly depressing picture. No wonder people who aren’t yet elderly don’t think about or even see the old. Who wants to dwell on all this misery?
So how true is this image of the elderly? Well, in many respects it’s quite true. The reason we have this picture is because we see it around us all the time (usually not the diapers, fortunately). But what people don’t see are the millions of older people all around them who do not look like this. One of the reasons they’re not seen is because as we age we gradually become invisible to younger people. Who hasn’t read things or heard things said by middle-aged women who talk about becoming invisible. And it’s the same thing with older men. Generally older people, women and men, are not noticed. There’s no reason for a younger person to notice an older person. They’re not candidates for attraction.
I don’t think people will ever stop having misconceptions about the elderly. But it’s worthwhile to take a look at the evidence that supports the idea that happiness is more the rule than the exception among older people and to examine the reasons why.
What Is Happiness?
But what is happiness? One dictionary definition I looked at came up with “the state of being happy.” Not too much help. But Wikipedia has a nice introduction to its discussion of happiness:
Happiness is a mental or emotional state of well-being characterized by positive or pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy. A variety of biological, psychological,religious, and philosophical approaches have striven to define happiness and identify its sources. Various research groups, including positive psychology, endeavor to apply the scientific method to answer questions about what “happiness” is, and how it might be attained. It is of such fundamental importance to the human condition that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” were deemed to be unalienable rights by the United States Declaration of Independence.
And there are many synonyms for happiness that attest to the wide variety of mental and emotional states associated with it:
contentment, satisfaction, cheerfulness, merriment, gaiety, joy, joyfulness,joviality,
jollity, glee, delight, good spirits, lightheartedness, well-being, enjoyment; exuberance,
exhilaration, elation, ecstasy, jubilation, rapture, bliss, blissfulness,
euphoria, transports of delight.
For me, personally, a feeling of well-being is what I experience the most when I’m happy. We’ll come back to that soon. But first, let’s look at a study that is rather convincing in it’s conclusion that older people are generally happier than others.
Happiness May Come With Age
In 2010 Nicholas Bakalar published an article in the New York Times entitled “Happiness May Come With Age, Study Says.” The article concerned a study that polled 340,000 people aged 18 to 85.
The results of that study should make older people feel pretty happy. Here’s how Bakalar sums them up:
On the global measure, people start out at age 18 feeling pretty good about themselves, and then, apparently, life begins to throw curve balls. They feel worse and worse until they hit 50. At that point, there is a sharp reversal, and people keep getting happier as they age. By the time they are 85, they are even more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.
In measuring immediate well-being — yesterday’s emotional state — the researchers found that stress declines from age 22 onward, reaching its lowest point at 85. Worry stays fairly steady until 50, then sharply drops off. Anger decreases steadily from 18 on, and sadness rises to a peak at 50, declines to 73, then rises slightly again to 85. Enjoyment and happiness have similar curves: they both decrease gradually until we hit 50, rise steadily for the next 25 years, and then decline very slightly at the end, but they never again reach the low point of our early 50s.
One of the things I find most interesting here is the role stress plays in our being happy or unhappy. We’re happiest when we’re 85 and we’re least stressed when we’re 85. Unlike some of the other factors measured – worry, anger, sadness — stress doesn’t seem to ebb and flow, just gets steadily lower with a corresponding steady rise in happiness.
Age As Maturity Hypothesis
There are several other studies that attest to the fact that happiness continues to grow as we age. For example, in 2008 the University of Chicago published a sociological study in the American Sociological Review that also found levels of happiness increasing as people aged. Professor Yang Yang of the University hypothesized that a reason for this phenomenon is because
The increase in happiness with age is consistent with the “age as maturity hypothesis,” Yang said. With age comes positive psychosocial traits, such as self-integration and self-esteem; these signs of maturity could contribute to a better sense of overall well-being. In addition, group differences in happiness decrease with age due to the equalization of resources that contribute to happiness, such as access to health care, including Medicare and Medicaid. . . .
Another reason older people might be happier is because they tend to become much more resilient as they age. By definition, this would mean that they spring back more quickly from setbacks and difficulties than they did when they were younger.
In an article about this on kevinmd.com, the author posits four components of resiliency among the elderly:
1. A sense of belonging.
2. Creating meaning through personal memories and life reviews.
The author elaborates on these components. You can click on the link to read more.
It has been suggested that yet another possible reason for a greater sense of happiness among the elderly might be due to the fact that they tend to look back at their lives “though rose-colored glasses,” in other words, they filter out the bad memories. Usually when we use this expression we do so in a disparaging sense, that is, we’re saying that the person is not seeing the “reality” of the world.
But that seems to me a very natural thing to do. We all talk about “the good old days.” I look back at the 1950s with great fondness. I just don’t think about things like the Korean war, McCarthyism, the creation of the hydrogen bomb, the Cold War, Castro, and Mao Zedong. Rather I think of things like Elvis swiveling his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show, my dancing at Bandstand after school, getting my driver’s license, James Dean, The Twilight Zone, going to the drive-in with my girlfriend, etc.
It stands to reason that the happier your memories, the greater your sense of well-being and thus the greater your sense of happiness.
The Joy of Old Age
Recently, in July, one on my intellectual heroes, Oliver Sachs, published a piece in the New York Times, called “The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding)” on the occasion of his turning 80. If you have time, please read it.
It is a joyous piece of writing. He contemplates the past and present and especially the future. He is thrilled at the many rewarding experiences he has had and the many wonderful friends he has known.
He does not at all disregard his regrets and the many sad and difficult things that have occurred during his lifetime, but he sees them with a perspective that allows the joy he refers to in article’s title to far outweigh everything else. He closes by saying:
My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.
Personally, I at 75 am quite happy. But clearly from all the above not nearly as happy as I’ll be at 85. And because I just read that my life expectancy is another 10.87 years of steadily increasing happiness, I’m looking forward to being simply ecstatic when I check out.