"Older and wiser." You're on board with that, right? Sure. But what if I said "older and more joyful?" That probably doesn't click in the same way. Physically, getting old sucks.
At ages 85 and up, one in three people say they have trouble hearing; 31 percent have trouble caring for themselves; half have trouble walking and living independently; and 28 percent say they have cognitive difficulty ... Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's, and other dementias all increase dramatically by age 70 and accelerate with each additional year.
Youth is all smiles and hope; old age is aches and pains while you count down the days to the end, right?
They did a study at Stanford University tracking the emotions of a group of people ages 18 to 94. Guess what? Older people are happier.
Older people consistently reported just as many positive emotions as the younger participants, but had fewer negative ones. They also had more mixed emotions, meaning that they didn't let frustration or anxiety keep them from saying they were happy. Consciously or unconsciously, they were making the choice to be happy even when there were reasons to feel otherwise ... Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, the researchers found that the emotional processing center of older people's brains, the amygdala, fired more actively when they looked at positive images than negative ones; younger brains reacted to both equally. In this, older brains resemble the brains of people who meditate.
Elderly people are happier than younger people? But their bodies are falling apart! Their best years are behind them! How is this possible?
A lot of what we think we know about aging is wrong. We have a lot to learn about getting older. And, more importantly, a lot to learn from older people. Remember: They've been your age — you haven't been theirs.
Author John Leland looked at the research on aging and spent a year shadowing a group of older folks to see what he could learn. His lessons are in the wonderful new book: Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons from a Year Among the Oldest Old.
As he explains: "Old age is the last thing we'll ever do, and it might teach us about how to live now." So here are four things we can learn about happiness from our elders.
1. Those things that make you happy? Do them.
We think of older people as set in their ways. Trying to get them to do anything new seems impossible. But what if instead of this being a weakness, it's a strength? Old people know what makes them happy. And they do it. We have plenty of things we enjoy, and we never seem to get around to them. People we love that we don't make time to see.
Older folks definitely miss out on some new stuff. And that might seem boring. But "new" often disappoints. And if your goal is to be happy, then why not do what you know will work?
One compelling explanation for the elders' greater contentment comes from the psychologist Laura L. Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. Her hypothesis, which she gave the wonky name "socioemotional selectivity," is that older people, knowing they face a limited time in front of them, focus their energies on things that give them pleasure in the moment, whereas young people, with long horizons, seek out new experiences or knowledge that may or may not pay off down the line.
And instead of simply doing those things that make us happy, we whippersnappers spend a lot of time on defense rather than offense. We play "discomfort whack-a-mole," thinking that if we can just eliminate all the bad stuff, life will be nothing but rainbows and sunshine.
Old people know that's impossible. There will always be pain in life. (Sorry.) Karl Pillemer of Cornell University makes the distinction between "happy in spite of" and "happy if only."
We think we'd be "happy if only" every bad thing went away. And that's ridiculous. Old people know there will always be challenges in life — but they choose to be "happy in spite of." And that works.
Gerontologists consider the tendency to sustain mixed feelings, rather than try to resolve them, as a component of elder wisdom, a recognition that life doesn't have to be all good to be good, and also that it never will be. Troubles are always with us, and getting rid of this one or that won't make us happy; it'll just move another hardship to the head of the class. Karl Pillemer of Cornell makes the distinction between "happy in spite of" and "happy if only," the former being a benefit of old age, the latter a vexation of youth. "Happy in spite of" entails a choice to be happy; it acknowledges problems but doesn't put them in the way of contentment. "Happy if only" pins happiness on outside circumstances: If only I had more money, less pain, a nicer spouse or house, I'd be happy as a clam ... Fulfillment need not be what's just around the corner. In the end, wisdom lies in finding it in the imperfect now.
Spend a little less time with all that is new and shiny and a little more time with what has always made you happy. Accept that in the game of "discomfort whack-a-mole," there will always be more moles. But you can choose to be "happy in spite of" that.
So you're making happier choices by going for the sure thing. But what's something that can make you happier with what you already have?
2. Express gratitude
When noted neurologist and author Oliver Sacks learned he had terminal cancer at age 82 his despair drove him to go on a three week cocaine-fueled bender that would make rockstars blush.
Actually, he didn't spend much time in despair. He was filled with gratitude for the incredible life he had been lucky enough to live.
"I cannot pretend I am without fear, but my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written ... Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure."
And research shows gratitude really does make us happy. When we step back from taking things for granted and the endless parade of wants and needs we crave, appreciating what we have fills us with joy.
In each study, the subjects who wrote down something they were grateful for reported greater levels of well-being and more optimism about the coming weeks or days. The more often they wrote, the stronger the effect. Depending on how the study was constructed, they reported other positive effects: They exercised more, slept better, woke up more refreshed, or were more likely to have helped someone else with a problem.
The amazing thing about gratitude is that you don't have to get or achieve anything to feel it. All it takes is a change in perspective. You can feel it right now if you want. So please don't wait until you get bad news from your oncologist in order to start.
Old age is sounding pretty good. But isn't it boring? Not necessarily.
3. Find purpose
As the old saying goes: "You're not bored. You're boring." If you don't have anything you're passionate about, something that drives you forward in life right now — well, you're probably not going to suddenly discover it when you're retired. But if you don't have anything that excites you before you reach 80, don't worry — you're probably never going to see 80. People who have purpose in life are not only happier and healthier — they live longer.
Researchers have long observed that older people who feel a sense of purpose in their lives tend to live longer, fuller, and healthier lives than people who don't.
"Find your purpose." Yeah, doesn't get more cliché than that. Corny. I get it. Well, let me throw in some added incentive: How about not losing your marbles?
Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, did an eight-year study looking at memory and purpose in life. She found that purpose did not protect people from Alzheimer's. But amazingly, it did protect them from the effects of Alzheimer's.
After death, the brains of those with Alzheimer's showed the same physical deterioration whether they had purpose in life or not. But when they went back and looked at the memory tests subjects had been given they found that the scores of the people with purpose more strongly resembled subjects who did not suffer from Alzheimer's at all.
And the stronger their purpose in life, the more protective it was.
"It has a lifelong benefit but something unique happens in old age, where being goal-directed helps you stave off bad health outcomes," she said. The good news, she said, is that people at any age can learn to form a purpose in life, either on their own or through simple interventions. Yours might be weak or strong, but you will benefit either way. "Part of it is getting people to sit down and say 'What do I want my life to look like at the end of the day?' she said. "'What do I want my mark to be?'"
What drives you? What inspires you? Feed that now and reap the benefits later. Don't have hobbies — have passions.
In his year following older folks, Leland never heard any of them talk about their youthful workplace accomplishments. Not once. So what is important to them that you should be focusing on now?
4. Double down on good relationships
They didn't talk about work. They didn't discuss the obstacles they'd overcome. And those material things they'd chased didn't matter much anymore. What the older people did find joy and pride in was their families and their relationships. They'd gotten a lot more zen. Sociologist Lars Tornstam calls the phenomenon "gerotranscendence."
In his surveys of people ages 74 to 104, asking how their values had changed since they were 50, nearly three-quarters agreed with the statement "Today I am less interested in superficial social contacts," and two-thirds said, "Today I have more delight in my inner world"; 81 percent agreed with the statement "Today material things mean less."
So what's that mean for you? Make those friends now. Don't just invest in your retirement fund; invest in your relationship fund. It'll make you happier now and it'll make you happier later.
It will also extend your life. There are a number of reasons why women live longer than men. But a big one is because they're usually much better about maintaining a good social circle.
In a study that followed 1,500 Californians for eight decades, Friedman and Martin found that "widowed women tended to thrive-they lived longer than the still-married women." They built social networks, herded their kids, did all the things they put off when their husbands were ill. Widowed men, on the other hand, tended to go quickly.
And while you want more offense and less defense when it comes to doing the things you enjoy, when it comes to relationships, playing some "D" is valuable. One of the reasons old folks are happier is because they prune their social circles and get rid of the bad apples.
When he started interviewing them about their lives, they described changes in their values as they got older. One was that they became more selective about how they spent their time and whom they spent it with ... As Laura Carstensen writes, "Bad relationships may be more harmful than good relationships are beneficial."
Okay, we can't beat the old fogeys — so we'd better join them. Let's round up what we've learned and find out the easiest way to get started on being young like you're old.
Here's how to find joy:
- Those things that make you happy? Do them: Take a break from "new." Listen to the music that has always made you happy. Spend time with the people who have always made you happy.
- Express gratitude: I just gave you valuable advice. The least you can do is say "thank you." Jeez.
- Find purpose: Don't have hobbies. Have passions.
- Double down on good relationships: Build your friendship 401K. Invest in good relationships now. The compound interest that comes from pals is incalculable.
Hopefully you're feeling more positive about getting older. Actually, you'd better be. Turns out that how you feel about living to a ripe old age has a big effect on whether or not you actually do.
A long-term survey of people in Ohio found that those who had positive perceptions of aging, measured by whether they agreed or disagreed with statements like "As you get older, you are less useful," went on to live an average of 7.5 years longer, a bigger boost than that associated with exercising or not smoking.
Do what makes you happy. Show gratitude. Find purpose. And invest in your relationships. Realize how surmountable most of the challenges you struggle with are and, like John Leland, realize just how amazing — really amazing — life is.
This may be the one-sentence essence of what I learned in my year among the oldest old: to shut down the noise and fears and desires that buffet our days and think about how amazing, really amazing, life is ... I couldn't live wholly in the moment, because I had a future to think about, but if I had learned anything, it was to live as if this future were finite, and the present all the more wondrous as a result ... Gratitude, purpose, camaraderie, love, family, usefulness, art, pleasure — all these are within my grasp, requiring of me only that I receive them. Those days I am kinder, more patient, more productive, less anxious, possibly closer to being the person I always should have been.
Longevity isn't all that valuable if you're not going to be happy. Who wants to extend misery? So ask yourself:
Do I want to live long or die long?
(Hint: Living long is much better.)
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