Yesterday in the local paper I read an essay by syndicated columnist Tom Purcell saying that a study published by the Center for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, as reported in the Daily Mail, had determined that happiness among humans peaks at age 23, tanks at 55 and then peaks again at 69.
Purcell said, “The findings make sense to me”, because “at 23 you are…confident your future includes great riches and fame, a lovely wife and a perfect family and home. As you move along, though, it doesn’t take long for the disappointments to begin piling up.”
Purcell mulled on each of the decades he had passed, as reality and expectations clashed. “And then you are 50. Good God, a half century?…Your mistakes and regrets come into sharp focus…You worry about the future more than you ever have.”
I learned, at the end of his essay, that Purcell is about 51. “I still have four years to reach my peak crankiness,” he concluded.
I mentioned the study’s findings to daughter Eleni, who is presently 38, and she disputed the idea that 23 is one of the happiest ages, pointing out that it’s when life can be most challenging—you’re looking for a job, a career, a life partner. Everything is up in the air and you’re suddenly faced with all sorts of worries and responsibilities you didn’t have before.
I searched to find out more about the study, which I learned was conducted on 23,161 Germans between the ages of 17 and 85, and led by Princeton researcher Hannes Schwandt for the London School of Economics. He cited “unmet aspirations which are painfully felt in midlife but beneficially abandoned later in life.” But at around age 60, he learned, happiness began to steadily increase as people move beyond past regrets and onto a level of acceptance.
The study did find, however, that after age 70, happiness again starts to decline.
Personally, I remember age 23, just out of graduate school and working at my first job, as being stressful and pretty depressing. At thirty I was newly wed and I spent the next decade having babies and moving overseas, which means that I pretty much missed the 1970’s.
To tell you the truth, I can’t remember being 55—that was in 1996—but I think it was a pretty good time of life.
Not long ago I was asked to contribute an essay for a book which is being published in the fall called “70 Things to Do When You Turn 70”.
I titled my contribution “Musing on the Joys of Cronehood” (naturally!) and said in part: “I used to think the best time of life was when your children are young and future triumphs are still possible. But now I think that, if you’re a woman and lucky enough to remain in good health, your cronehood – after 60—is the best era, free of the drama, responsibilities, worries and the insecurities of youth….When women reach that milestone, they often channel the creative energy they spent on home, children and jobs into some long-hidden passion….They allow themselves to try the things they’d always dreamed of but never had time to do.”
So yes, I’d say that right now, age 72, is one of the happiest times of my life—enjoying travel and some “bucket list” experiences (which of course I record here as they happen). High among them is the joy of hanging out with a 2-year-old first grandchild who is showing me how to look at everything with awe, as if for the first time.
Of course being healthy is critical to being happy at this age. Every day I say a prayer of thanks that I can still climb stairs and carry my own suitcase--though not as easily as before—because many of my friends are not so lucky. But I think even those who are weathering hip and knee replacements and all the other hard knocks that old age has in store would still rate their happiness level as pretty high, because by now we’ve made peace with the disappointments and unrealized dreams of our younger selves.