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Why Older People Are Happier

Over on Slate last week, Libby Copeland had an interesting article about aging and happiness. In it, she summarized a growing body of research...

Over on Slate last week, Libby Copeland had an interesting article about aging and happiness. In it, she summarized a growing body of research showing that subjective well-being improves considerably after middle-age.

This result is sometimes referred to as the U-Bend, to connote the higher levels of happiness in early and late adulthood, with a dip during middle-age.  While the age at which this happiness boost kicks in varies across countries (as early as 35 in Switzerland (Damn them!) and as late as 62 in the Ukraine), the result has held up astonishingly well both within the United States and cross-nationally, occurring on average around the age of 46.

There are a variety of hypotheses floating around out there to explain this persistent age/happiness finding. But most theories seem to come down less on the side of circumstance (e.g. retirement/empty nest/etc.) and more on the side of a change in mind-set which kicks in once we get beyond middle age.

As Copeland summarizes it: “As we age, it appears, we aspire to moderation rather than thrills, we notice the silver lining, we temper our highs and lows, and we seek fulfillment in the moment. With age comes pragmatism—instead of remaking the world, we remake our impressions of it.”

Which makes a lot of sense to me. When you’re young, as Copeland narrates, you shoot for the moon. You experiment a lot and you make a lot of mistakes. After all, you’ve got all the time in the world to figure it out.

But as you age, your time horizons shorten and you prioritize the things you’ve learned that you like. What kind of friends you want to have around you. What career makes sense for you. What you want to do for a hobby.

Which doesn’t mean that this adjustment is painless. To the extent that this happiness boost hinges on lowering one’s aspirations, for example – that’s a lot easier said than done. Indeed, I’d venture to say that “acceptance” is one of the hardest things to come to terms with as a grown-up (which may account for that big happiness dip during mid-life.)

But once you figure out a way to do that – to realize that you probably aren’t going to be the next Beethoven (itself a source of anxiety) – a certain relief sets in as you stop searching and just live.

I’m not there yet. But I do look forward to it. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Image: Old Couple by kayugee via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.





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  1. steven germain August 9, 2011 at 3:07 am #

    I could not agree more:

    The cliche, time flies, is true. And I think the reason is that our memories tend to compress the routine in between important events. Births, weddings, vacations, illnesses, deaths, holidays. But what if the humdrum (30 years at the job, the weekly food shop, going to the dry cleaners etc) is in some way not merely the filler in between the important stuff – but is the important stuff? Because commuting to the office for 30 years to earn money to spice up the humdrum with the occasional break from routine – does sound like the “rat race” and a losing battle – and when your head hits the pillow and you think about tomorrow you would not likely want to get out of bed if you thought you were losing the battle because let’s face it for the most part no matter how much you strive or achieve or covet, no one avoids the stuff of real unhappiness… illness, disappointment, death, hardship, tragedy, boredom, loss – yet most people keep going, even happily, despite the rat race and despite a lot of good reasons to be pretty unhappy and so maybe what the Amida Monks were onto and what the stranger meant by that kiss is that the small stuff – the quiet and ordinary and everyday as much as the winning and acquiring are things to be thankful for. And as long as you are grateful, and I mean really grateful, for the job and the food shopping and the dry cleaner and for the brake light then, when you lift your head off that pillow, the reason you actually feel good is because you are appreciating just how fucking lucky you are that your head is even on a pillow. That is a start to a good day.

    The answer (I think) is to pay attention and be as aware as you can be and to care and then maybe you don’t take for granted being on line at the food store or going to the dry cleaners or having to fix the brake light, or your pillow and then maybe time (and life) doesn’t fly – it is savored.

    As an aside, I want to add that none of this has to do with travel, which it sounds like I am somehow against – not at all. Travel is very cool and fun (way more fun than going to the dry cleaners – that is the problem).

    • delialloyd August 9, 2011 at 7:40 am #

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful reply, Steven. I love the dry cleaner analogy and I think it captures beautifully the reality – sad, disappointing in ways, but ultimately, as you say, uplifting – of the journey that is middle age. It takes so long to come to the wisdom you articulate so beautifully here, but we do get there. And are better off for it. Here’s to reveling in the mundane.

  2. daryl boylan August 22, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    All of the above is true. Unhappily, a couple of major downers come with aging. You learn to live with health problems, declining stamina, etc. You do not get used to the losses of people you care about & the resulting loneliness. Yes, you work hard at expanding activities, friendly contacts, etc. But people can’t be replaced.

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