People tend to think that life goes downhill as you age, but the research shows the opposite is true: lifetime happiness tends to be U-shaped, with most people getting happier as they get older. Why? My column in the January 26 edition of The Southern Star discussed this important subject, and is reproduced below.
As you get older, your looks fade. Mentally, you become less sharp and your memory declines. Your physical health suffers.
And you get happier.
Well, not everyone gets happier as they age, but it’s pretty common. Countless international studies show lifetime happiness resembles a U-shape. Young people entering adulthood tend to be relatively positive and optimistic, but then happiness levels gradually decline and keep heading south for a few decades. The mid-like crisis is a real phenomenon, with people tending to be least happy when they are in their 40s or early 50s (apparently, 46 is the worst age!). After that, however, things pick up: people keep getting happier right up into their 70s and beyond.
Although the evidence supporting the U-bend theory is very strong, the idea is invariably greeted with disbelief. In one study, researchers got a group of 30-year-olds and a group of 70-year-olds and asked them who was likely to be happier. Both groups agreed the youthful people were more likely to be happier, and both were wrong – the older were the happier crew.
We live in a culture that has long venerated youth and denigrated old age. The Who’s Pete Townshend famously wrote the line “Hope I die before I get old”, a sentiment echoed by a young Mick Jagger (“What a drag it is getting old”). This, coupled with the aforementioned physical and mental declines associated with age, means people tend to think life goes downhill for most folk, when the truth is otherwise.
Why? External factors play a part. As kids leave home and work pressures fade away, people have more time for themselves, more time to do as they please. Even if you remove these factors, however, the U-bend is still evident in the research. That indicates people’s lives change on an internal as well as an external level, and that these changes help them to become more happy and content.
What are these internal changes? (continued below...)
Well, psychologists have found older people are less likely than younger people to feel angry or anxious if asked to perform a stressful task. They are more accepting of negative emotions: instead of running from difficult feelings, they are more likely to recognise such feelings are an inevitable part of life. As people age, they tend to seek out situations that will boost mood and to avoid friends or acquaintances who bring them down. Instead of ruminating on unachieved goals, they let go of old losses and disappointments, and are less unhappy about things they can’t change. They are better at controlling their own emotions and better at sensing emotions in others. They have less rows and devise better solutions to conflict. They’re less self-critical, more grateful, and more appreciative of the beauty of life.
Obviously, I’m generalising here. Some people get more unhappy as they age, for all kinds of reasons. Many young people are calm and accepting; many old people are not. Overall, however, the research suggests people acquire a fair degree of wisdom as they pass through life.
Accordingly, the young and not-so-young can learn important psychological lessons from their more elderly counterparts. Young people can be plagued by social anxiety and insecurities (“what will they think of me?”), and people often continue to play self-defeating games into their 30s and 40s in an effort to keep up with the Jones’s. As people get older, they become more conscious that time is limited. Accordingly, they become less inclined to strive and more inclined to enjoy life as it is. They learn to prize the here and now, the things that really matter, and to laugh at their own shortcomings rather than beating themselves up about them.
Dr Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), continues to work and conduct research today. Now 96, Beck has lived a rich life, and was asked on his 90th birthday what his message would be to people. His reply – “keep things in proportion” – was simple, but insightful.
Another elderly gentleman has a similarly simple but valuable message: just “cherish the lessons every passing day brings”. The speaker? A certain Pete Townshend – now 72 and still happily playing his music.