Happiness reveals Upside of Aging
Excitement bubbled into every encounter as the birthday of a young acquaintance approached. It wasn’t just the thought of presents that evoked this eagerness—it was unfettered delight at the thought of getting older.
In a few days, she would be 10 years old. Double digits at last—a landmark in advancing age and she was bouncing with anticipation. Most of my friends have been marking double-digit birthdays for decades with significantly less enthusiasm, so as I witnessed the rampant exhilaration of a 10-year-old, questions floated through my mind.
At what age do we begin to shed this joyous anticipation of an upcoming birthday? When does celebration give way to dread as the calendar turns? Maybe age 21 is a turning point—a legal and cultural coming-of-age in our society. Is it all downhill after this? By age 30, jibes and taunts spill from birthday cards. By 40, black balloons float above the cake. No wonder the annual rite fills us with anxiety. Does life get bleaker with each passing year?
Well, not according to research on human happiness. The results of U.S. and international happiness studies spread a sweet frosting on late-decade birthday cakes.
Return to the Age of Happiness
It appears that happiness levels make a dramatic U-turn as we travel the course of life. For those of us in western cultures, studies suggest that happiness levels peak in the early 20s. Then they take a nosedive through the mid-life decades.
Around age 60, the dip reverses itself and edges upward into a climb. By age 70, happiness levels reach the heights felt at 21. And they keep going up, giving us statistical encouragement to rethink attitudes toward advancing age.
For those of us who grumble about sagging jowls, faulty memories, and arthritic knees this rose-tinted optimism might provoke as much skepticism as elation. It’s hard to deny, after all, that advancing years also deliver a progression of losses physical, emotional, or mental.
But beneath all that, a wellspring of contentment seems to rise as we age, bringing balance to the trials of life after Medicare. It brings what we’ve spent decades seeking—a sense of satisfaction and wellbeing.
The pursuit of happiness is etched in the DNA of America, but an emphasis on evaluating happiness and measuring the success of that pursuit has been gathering worldwide momentum since Bhutan launched a program of Gross National Happiness in the 1970s.
The international Gallop World Poll now poses questions of wellbeing and happiness in surveys. Those findings generate an annual World Happiness Report that rates countries based on quality of life questions.
The 2015 report ranked Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Canada in the top five slots on its happiness index. The United States placed 15th in the list of 158 countries surveyed. Fifteenth out of 158. What do you think? Is that good enough? Would we be happier if the US ranked seventh, say? Should we be striving for more? How much happiness is enough?
What? Me Worry?
Sometimes the word-hawk in me gets cranky about this insistent quest for “happiness.” I lose patience with simplicity of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” admonitions.
My dispute isn’t with feeling good about life. It’s with the word “happy” which feels glib and superficial for what we really want, and for what these studies measure. But clearly, “happy” is the word that’s been embraced around the world to identify quality of life and it obviously offers more marketing sizzle than words like contentment, wellbeing, security or acceptance.
So, instead of resisting the word, I decided to seek the opinions of Dan Baker, author of “What Happy People Know,” and former director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch health resort in Tucson.
Baker has made a career out of discovering what makes people happy, even when life is challenging. He followed up his first book with works that studied the secrets of “happy women” and “happy businesses.” I wondered if he had given any thought to “what happy seniors know.”
“Interesting question,” he responded when I reached him by phone at his Tucson home. Baker, 69, admitted he hadn’t given much thought to this specific population, but he had a few comments on the topic.
“I think that people redefine their lives when they move into their 60s and 70s,” he says. “I think people get past the ‘wanting’ stage that makes us crazy, and move into a more accepting stage.”
Acceptance is not resignation, Baker stresses. It’s being content with “this is who I am. There are a lot of expectations on young people – getting through school, careers, families—my guess is that age gives us a break from the expectations and allows us to achieve more and be more,” he says.
If it’s true that life gets better as we get older, it may be because we get more skilled at adapting to what life hands us. Adapting, Baker believes, is the key to success and happiness. He thinks perhaps we have misinterpreted Charles Darwin for decades by boiling his evolutionary research down to “survival of the fittest.”
If you look at survival, Baker says, it isn’t the most fit that emerge successful or satisfied in stressful situations—it’s the most adaptable. Those who can recalibrate and adjust to changing circumstances, even to tragic losses, can re-emerge to shape new lives.
‘Happy’ doesn’t Mean Trouble-Free
“Happiness isn’t the art of building a trouble-free life,” he says. “It’s the art of responding well when trouble strikes.”
Baker is no stranger to challenges and grief. He suffered his own collision with tragedy at the death of his infant son. The experience guided his personal and professional focus on the psychological tools of resiliency, and on the human search for happiness.
Last year brought another affront to happiness when Baker’s legs went numb on a solo hike deep in an Arizona canyon with his two hunting dogs. Three surgeries for blocked arteries and five weeks of slow recovery provided time to reconsider trails he’d take in the future.
“I think there are things about aging that allow us to think more clearly about what we value, than when we are younger,” he says. “When you hear the clock ticking, people really can go through a reevaluation process and come up with what is most important to them
“You have the opportunity to develop wisdom. Wisdom isn’t exclusively the domain of people over 60, but I do think more people over 60 have more wisdom. You gain from each experience.”
So perhaps, as it turns out, pursuit isn’t the best approach in the quest for happiness. Patience offers better odds. It appears that happiness sidles up to us gradually, gently, borne on a lifetime’s accumulation of adaptability, acceptance, appreciation and experience. A fringe benefit of age.
Another year older; another year happier. Light the candles. Cut the cake and celebrate as the double digits climb.
Carolyn Scott Kortge, of Eugene, is a former Register-Guard editor and writer,
and author of “The Spirited Walker.” Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.