Tag Archives: happiness

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 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.

 

 

 

 

Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To Be Optimistic About Middle Age

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

This week’s list is inspired by a barrage of recent scientific studies offering good news about middle age.

Middle age has long been conceptualized as that phase of life where we cease thinking about our potential as human beings, and start focusing on our limitations. No more. While not everything looks rosy (stay tuned for next week’s tip list), there are at least a few trends out there that do bode well for those of us hovering at the mid-point of our lives.

Here are five reasons to feel optimistic:

1. People are living longer. According to scientists, more people than ever before are living to older adulthood. In the U.S., the average lifespan has risen 30 years since 1900. And today’s older adults are better-educated, healthier, more active and more affluent than any previous generation. Plus, as I pointed out last week, the labor market is becoming more diverse and there will be more jobs for the over-55 set. So there’s lots more time – and more to do.

2. Our brains keep evolving. New research also shows that – contrary to the long-held view that our brains get fixed in early childhood – circuits in the adult brain are, in fact, continually modified by experience. The result? In some respects, we actually think better in middle age. Specifically, inductive reasoning and problem solving improves in the middle-aged brain. We get the gist of an argument better. We arrive at solutions more quickly. Even financial judgments peak in middle age.

3. People are happier over 50. This is also both surprising and welcome news. A survey of more than 340,000 people published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that overall feelings of wellbeing improve as we pass middle age. Specifically, levels of stress, worry and anger all dropped significantly for people in their fifties, while levels of happiness and enjoyment increased. While the study wasn’t designed to identify the causes of increased happiness, scholars speculated that with age comes greater wisdom and emotional intelligence. A similar study carried out in Canada also found that self-esteem is highest among middle-aged boomers. The corollary of all this research? We can probably expect to see fewer mid-life crises.

4. Even divorce can be positive. As the endless analyses of Al and Tipper Gore’s break up tell us, late divorce (i.e. divorce in marriages 20 years or longer) is increasingly common. But it’s also not necessarily a bad thing. A large number of articles that followed on the Gores’ split emphasized late divorce as a form of autonomy and self-actualizationespecially for women – rather than just sticking it out for longevity’s sake. For me, at least, that was the first time I’d seen divorce as a cultural trend discussed in positive terms.

5. The AARP has had a makeover. Yup, that’s right folks. The American Association for Retired Persons (that’s AARP for all those in the know) has had an on-line overhaul in order to cater to the digital demands of the over-50 crowd. So for all you aging Facebook-ers out there, you have a new on-line hang out.

Image: AARP by Somewhat Frank via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Is Part-Time Work the Wave of The Future?

Here’s an unorthodox policy move in the midst of a recession: Tell businesses to create more part-time jobs.

The British government has recently unveiled a series of initiatives to bolster part-time work, including urging employers to post full-time jobs as part-time or job-sharing arrangements, as well as creating a national data base of part-time jobs. In a particularly bold move, the British government is also considering extending flexible working laws — which allow employees to ask their current boss if they can reduce their hours — to future employers as well.

Today I’m over on PoliticsDaily.com talking about why this may be smart economics and smart politics…and why it may also make women happier.

Have a look

*****

I was delighted to have my article about delaying the start of schooling featured on the New York Times Motherlode blog last week. Motherlode is a superb website for parents of children all ages, which combines personal essays, policy analysis and good old-fashioned reporting. If you’re looking to read a parenting blog, go no further.

Image: Registration by Dansays via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Ways To Lower Your Expectations

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

So this morning I was riding a bus and I happened to read an op-ed by Eric Weiner in the International Herald Tribune about happiness. The basic thrust of the article (which appeared in Monday’s New York Times) was that Denmark has once again been ranked as “The Happiest Country in the World” according to a Eurobarometer survey. It’s a distinction that this country has held for the last 30 years. The article goes on to argue that the reason that the Danes enjoy such happiness is that they have lower expectations than the rest of us.

Hmmmm. As someone who regularly sets the bar too high in just about everything I do, I had trouble swallowing this at first. But when I thought about it, I realized that Weiner – and the Danes – have a point. After all, lowering your expectations doesn’t mean letting go of your dreams, as Simon James notes in this funny and spot-on post on the Freelance Writing Jobs Network. It just means approaching life with a somewhat different mindset.

In that spirit -  and if for no other reason than to knock Denmark off its happiness-survey perch – here are five tips for lowering your expectations:

1. Accept that B+ is OK. Or, if you prefer a baseball analogy: stick to base hits. You don’t need to knock it out of the park every time. I have a good friend who’s a self-employed IT consultant. At one point in her career, she decided to take on more work without increasing her hours so that she could still spend a reasonable amount of time with her kids. “How did you manage that?” I asked. “I don’t deliver A level work all the time anymore. I finally realized that B+ is OK.” I thought about that comment for years. Which brings us to…

2. Realize that No One Cares. I think that many of us harbor this sense that the world is watching – and judging – every last decision that we make. I myself walk around with a panel of elders – a semi-circle of aging wise men who collectively monitor my every move. But the hard truth, folks, is that most people don’t give a sh$# what you do with your life. They’re too wrapped up in their own lives to bother with yours. And once you realize that no one’s watching, you can ease up a bit on yourself.

3. Recognize that Happiness May Be Fleeting. Another way to say this is that sh#$ happens and you can’t control much of what comes your way. The Danes themselves apparently temper their “happiest” status with the expression “lige nu” which means something like “for now.”  When you embrace happiness as a scarce commodity, it enables you to  enjoy what you have right now instead of always reaching for the next frontier.

4. Imagine the Worst Case Scenario. Sometimes, when I’m really freaking out because I fear that I’ve failed to achieve one of my goals, I imagine the worst possible thing that could befall me in that arena. And when I do that, I usually realize that I haven’t hit rock bottom and consequently appreciate whatever it is I have accomplished, even if it falls below what I wanted. Case in point: I’ve written a novel. But, so far, I haven’t managed to sell it. The worst case scenario is that I’ll never sell it. And that would really suck. But then I remind myself that unlike two years ago, I’m no longer talking about writing a novel anymore. I’ve actually done it. And I feel a bit better.

5. Move to Denmark. If all else fails, move to Copenhagen. I hear they have excellent pastries.

Image: Morning Buns by Cacaobug via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.