Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Does Getting Older Mean Getting Happier?

My Aunt Kathleen always used to say, after reciting news of the latest ailments suffered by herself or her friends, “Old age is not for sissies!”

Imagine my surprise at reading in today’s New York Times, in the science section, that a large Gallup poll has determined that “people get happier as they get older; and researchers are not sure why.”

The study questioned 340,000 Americans aged 18 to 85, asking various questions about age, sex, current events, personal finances, health and other matters. They were also asked “How did you feel yesterday? Did you experience the following feelings during a large part of the day: enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, anger, sadness.”

The researchers discovered, according to the Times reporter, that “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.”

(This study implicitly echoes a brilliant statement I once read somewhere, namely that the secret to happiness is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.)

So this is good news for crones. At 18 you think you’re great. Life from that point gets continuously worse until you hit bottom at fifty. Then there’s a sharp turn around and you get happier and happier until at 85 you’re even happier than you were at 18.

(Come to think of it, I was pretty miserable throughout my 18th year.)

An English professor of psychology said about the study, “It’s a very encouraging fact that we can expect to be happier in our early 80’s than we were in our 20’s. And it’s not being driven predominantly by things that happen in life. It’s something very deep and quite human that seems to be driving this.”

Another professor of psychology, an American, asked “Why at age 50 does something seem to start to change?”

Nobody knows why happiness hits bottom at fifty and then abruptly things start to get better, or happier. There could be a lot of explanations – even hormonal. But I suspect that part of the answer is that when we’re young, we think we can conquer the world, and by the time we’re fifty, it becomes clear that we’re not ever going to do it. Then, perhaps around the fiftieth birthday, we start to make peace with what we have achieved in life and to notice and appreciate everyday pleasures.

Yesterday, Memorial Day, I went to the cemetery in the morning and in the afternoon I went on a “photography walk” through the Tower Hill Botanical Garden, led by photographer Scott Erb and sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum.

The various gardens and fountains of Tower Hill were in full glory, and I was struck by how many of the visitors photographing, picnicking, or just walking around looking with delight at the landscape were very old. Many of them could barely walk—supporting themselves on canes or walkers or even being pushed in wheelchairs. But they were taking such joy in the flowering dogwood trees and the riot of many-colored peonies, irises and roses.

Perhaps with age comes the wisdom to know what’s really important, and, because life is precarious and nearly over, the happiness that comes from something as simple as seeing the roses burst into bloom one more time is intensified. Money can’t buy happiness but maybe old age can bring it.


lactmama said...

I think at 50 or at the time of menopause (men o pause) there is a great internal shake up. It is parallel to being a teenager - you are nuts. Could also be anger. One starts to do all sorts of things, sometimes it is Margaret Mead's postmenopausal zest. Change. Action. And at the end of it things calm down, there is acceptance and more appreciation of the small things around us. I also think at 50 you realize that there is just so much time remaining in our lives and it should be used wisely.

宛AshleyRemley1218儒 said...

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