With the passing of years , people tend to get more introspective ; they think about topics like ” the meaning of it all ” , karma , contentment and happiness. In the process they sometimes find , to their surprise , that their long-held views change drastically. Such was the case with me , when I happened to read an article “The U- Bend of Life “ in the December 2010 issue of The Economist.
Until then , I had slipped into the traditional mode of thinking that a person’s early years are the happiest and that there is a steady decline in happiness as one ages. After all , there are plenty of old adages that make this point. ” The first thirty years are worth all the rest “ is one of them. “ Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative “ is another. Jokes about seniors and their ailments are also in abundance. There is little positive to be heard about “The Golden Years”, but it now turns out that that view is wrong.
There is a lot of data on happiness and aging, collected world-wide by various organizations such as America’s General Survey, Eurobarometer and Gallup. These polls ask two main sorts of questions . The first sort asks for people’s assessment of their entire lives and is designed to measure global well-being . The other asks how they feel at any particular time and measures their emotional well being.Trawling through the mountains of data that have been collected, researchers have come to some unexpected conclusions .For instance , women are found to be , on the whole, slightly happier than men but are also more likely to have been subject to depression at some point in their lives.Another interesting finding is that people with children in the house are less happy than those without.
The most fascinating correlation , the one between happiness and age, is completely at odds with earlier views. The conventional view , which dates back to the 16th and 17th centuries , was that contentedness and stature rise steadily until middle age and then decline sharply for the rest of one’s life. If happiness were plotted against age , the graph would be an inverted U. Modern studies unanimously show the true correlation to be exactly the opposite , a U-shaped or cup-shaped curve bottoming out approximately at age 46.In other words , happiness decreases steadily until middle age but then picks up and keeps increasing . By the time people are 85, they are even more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18 . Imagine that !!
When it comes to the individual factors that affect happiness , “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 middle age.”
Now that I think about it , the U-shaped curve makes perfect sense.In the first half of life , worries , stress and responsibilities are on the upswing as early as middle school. Because of peer pressure, school is not the care-free place it used to be . High school with its adolescent angst , academic pressures and the worry about college is a high stress period. College used to be fun but is less so now with the pressure to do well academically and get a good job. Then come dating , getting married and having children all of which have their rewards but lead to an increase in responsibility.In middle age , the pressures of juggling job and family , taking care of one’s children and sometimes one’s parents leave little time for oneself. It is but natural that happiness bottoms out in this period of life . It is only later, after the children are on their own , when one’s responsibilities have diminished that one is able to relax and do what one really wants to do.Hence the uptick in happiness. ( Reading this paragraph makes it seem as if life is a chore . Not so , all phases of life are enjoyable particularly if one has the right attitude. All I wanted to say was that the middle portion of life is the time of our heaviest responsibilities and the time that we are most stressed and the least happy).
The poll’s health questions were not specific enough to draw any conclusions about the effect of disease or disability on happiness in old age. However a survey conducted by the University of California @ San Diego seems to suggest that happiness in old age may have more to do with attitude than with actual health.In the UCSD study , researchers examined 500 Americans age 60 to 98 who live independently and had dealt with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental health conditions or a range of other problems. The participants rated their own degree of successful aging on scale of 1-10, with 10 being best.Despite their ailments, the average rating was a surprisingly high 8.4. Dilip Jeste , the leading researcher in the UCSD study, concluded that ” … people who think they are aging well are not necessarily the (healthiest) individuals … In fact, optimism and effective coping styles were found to be more important to aging successfully than traditional measures of health and wellness… physical health is not the best indicator of successful aging—attitude is.”
I know this to be true from the experiences of my friends. A good friend of ours suffers from a host of ailments and has been in hospital twice this year already. Despite that she continues to be the most upbeat person I know. When I speak to her on the phone , I find myself smiling involuntarily and, by the time we’re done talking, I get the feeling that all’s right with the world. Another friend has health problems , financial problems and family problems yet is always full of good cheer and ready for anything. Truly , attitude is everything.
Two personality traits – neuroticism and extroversion – seem to have a greater effect on aging than do others. Not surprisingly , neurotic people , those more prone to guilt , anger and anxiety , tend to be more unhappy. Such people tend to have low emotional intelligence which makes them bad at forming relationships which in turn leads to unhappiness. By the same token , extroverts generally tend to be happier people ; the British , who are more extroverted are , on average , happier than the Chinese or the Japanese.
But why is it that people grow happier once they pass those critical middle years ? Studies show that happiness is not the result of external circumstances; finances , employment status and children are irrelevant in their effect on contentment. Happiness increases because of internal changes that we make as we age.Older people are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and are less prone to anger.They are less judgemental and are less bothered by the negative opinions of others. Perhaps , because of their shortened time frame , they are more inclined to live in the present.Seeing contemporaries leave this world has a way of making survivors more determined to make the most of their remaining years .People learn to accept their strengths and weaknesses and are more forgiving of themselves.Not only does this make them happier , it makes them healthier and more productive .
All this paints a picture of the Golden Years that is positively rosy. Maybe there is something to the adage ” Grow old with me ; the best is yet to be “.