The U of Happiness

Most people look at old age with dread. The common image is of failing health, failing cognitive ability, and general misery.

However, new studies point out that this is not the case. Actually, older adults tend to be happier than the middle aged. Curiously enough, this finding is true across many countries and cultures.

It appears  that happiness, measured in many different ways, is shaped like the letter “U” across life. People tend to be happy and hopeful starting their life as young adults, in their twenties. Than stress, and the disappointments of life take their toll. There is steady decline of happiness until middle age. Than something surprising happens: In spite of all the losses that age may bring, people start to feel happier. Even after controlling for income level, health and many other variables the distinctive U shape is maintained. The lower point of happiness, averaged across many people, is around the age of 46. Even more surprisingly, average happiness during old age surpasses that of early adulthood.

At first glance, a cynical observer may be excused for thinking that this is wishful thinking of a cohort of aging baby boomer researchers. Taking a closer look, the research appears valid and is worth understanding.

There are a number of explanations that may clarify this trend. One explanation is demographic. The stress of raising children passes as they leave the house and life becomes calmer. But this explanation is not enough by itself. It seem that the growing happiness is a result of inner transformation.

As young adults we feel the need to prove ourselves and we are constantly and restlessly striving. As middle age advances, we become more accepting of the point we have reached in life. We are able to enjoy what we have with less constant frustration over what we have not attained.

Maybe this is what is called wisdom.

At a later age, in spite off losses around them, people enjoy and value their time, in spite of difficulties that age imposes, precisely because they do not take the time they have for granted. Older people are less concerned over what others may think of them. They use skills they acquired over lifetime: They are better at managing their emotions. They are much less angry and judgmental. They are better at managing conflicts, so their support system is better.

Happiness is a valid goal in itself. It also has tangible benefits. Happiness has been shown to lead to  a healthier and more productive life.

The question is,  how can we accelerate our path along the happiness curve without having to wait for the passage of time.

adapted from an article published in the Economist, December 18th, 2010.