Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Joy of Old Age

Our cult to youth notwithstanding, we are happiest when we reach old age. Perhaps it’s because we are happy to have survived so long. With one caveat: old age is a happy time when one’s health is good.

Anyway, David Brooks summarizes the research:

When researchers ask people to assess their own well-being, people in their 20s rate themselves highly. Then there’s a decline as people get sadder in middle age, bottoming out around age 50. But then happiness levels shoot up, so that old people are happier than young people. The people who rate themselves most highly are those ages 82 to 85.

One suspects that young people are happiest because they do not know any better, and since it depends on their own self-rating, one has a right to be somewhat skeptical.

As for the aged among us, why are they so happy?

Brooks offers a cogent explanation:

I’d rather think that elder happiness is an accomplishment, not a condition, that people get better at living through effort, by mastering specific skills. I’d like to think that people get steadily better at handling life’s challenges. In middle age, they are confronted by stressful challenges they can’t control, like having teenage children. But, in old age, they have more control over the challenges they will tackle and they get even better at addressing them.

The older you get the better you grasp what is going on, in your life and in the world. You know how the game is played; you know the players; you know the rules; you have a better understanding of what is going on around you and in the world.

With age comes wisdom and with wisdom comes happiness.

But also, with age come social skills. The older you are the more you know how to negotiate differences, the more you know how to compromise, the more you understand that friendships matter. The more connected you are, the better you get along, the happier you will be.

As for the skills that come with age, Brooks  lists some of them.


Only with experience can a person learn to see a fraught situation both close up, with emotional intensity, and far away, with detached perspective.

Younger people are either too emotionally intense or too detached. Since they do not know enough to understand exactly what is going on, they feel that they need to choose between being overly emotional or being insufficiently involved.

With age, one learns to find the middle ground between the two extremes.

Second, older people don’t overdramatize situations and deal better with anxiety. They know, as younger people often do not, that a setback is not the end of the world.

Third, with age comes true balance:

Then there is the ability to balance tensions. In Practical Wisdom, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue that performing many social roles means balancing competing demands. A doctor has to be honest but also kind. A teacher has to instruct but also inspire. You can’t find the right balance in each context by memorizing a rule book. This form of wisdom can be earned only by acquiring a repertoire of similar experiences.

True enough, you do not master these skills by following a formula. Yet, the ethic that requires us to find a mean between the extremes contains many rules.

Judicious judgment requires that you balance competing interests, that you have overcome your impulse to take sides, that you no longer believe that you have a monopoly on the truth.

Of course, human experience tends to humble us. The older we get the more we have had our share of winning and losing, of success and failure. We recall the times when our conviction was belied by events and the times when we were in fact right.

And we are more likely to be benevolent to young people who are no longer our competition. We have more to give and most often we are happy to give it.


Ares Olympus said...

re: The people who rate themselves most highly [in happiness] are those ages 82 to 85.

82-85 definitely sounds on the old side, and somewhat 'self selected' by beating the survival curve, and perhaps most of the grumps have died off by then?

And its easy to agree with Brook's view that balance is the source of happiness, and to imagine we all get better at this with age?

I also wonder about the fact that "we" spend a lot more money in the elderly these days. Life is good on a fixed income, like you say, if your health is good, and we got drugs for everything now, right?

The consistent message I've heard from retirees is "I don't know how I ever had time to work." so between hobbies and grand kids or whatever. But I wonder what's special past 80 specifically?

But for others early retirement years can be hard. I remember one college prof I knew, he said he felt invisible to younger people, and he had spent his whole life with students, and teaching and never had kids of his own.

I remember my dad in his last decade, died at 75, got into a habit of checking obituaries daily, and seeing names he knew. That seems like a depressing idea, but maybe it also encourages you to make good use of the time left?

I also wonder about the gender differences, women tend to outlive men, especially if unmarried, so I wonder if men have to work harder to build new relationships later that they took for granted when they were younger?

Lastango said...

As I see, hear, and read it, one gift of age is that people no longer distress themselves with imaginings, or pursue the unobtainable. When all that departs, so does a great deal of unnecessary and unproductive angst. That leaves room for some tranquility.

There might be many reasons for this, and not all are the product of wisdom, achievement, or self-understanding. Sometimes it's because they see defeat for what it is. At some age, defeat isn't remediable... people have all the money they're ever going to have, there are no more career avenues, they won't be falling in love again, perhaps they won't ever be fully healthy again. In the face of that, perhaps it's possible to calm down and think about something else for a change.

Dennis said...

Much of what Lastango states is true, but I would suggest that many of those who stay happy have not allowed the child in them to go away. We still find joy in discovery and every problem is an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and life.
In many cases we can take the risks that the adult in us would always remind us of the ramifications of those risks. It also a great feeling that one knows how to endure and succeed no matter how small those victories.
One needs to see the humor and joy that exist in every day life that most people miss. To notice the smile of a baby as it begins to notice and understand its environment, to walk outside a notice the beauty of how the clouds just seem to be beautifully painted in place, the pure music of watching a beautiful woman walk, et al. It is all there if one just takes the time to see and feel it.
Most of all one begins to notice how very simple life is and it does not contain anywhere the complexity most people try to create. One also begins to recognize that one cannot make anything of lasting value happen. One has to be patient and set the condition for it to happen. Luck in most cases is where preparation meets opportunity. "A teaspoon of medicine will cure where a bottle will kill." A simple thing, but most want the whole situation or desire NOW.
One has to have someone, something or both to love because that love gives one purpose and comfort. It is the key to almost every aspect of the way we see and live life. Without that the rest is nothing more that a hollow accomplishment.
Sadly, we have put so much emphasis of youth and a time when one has very little experience in life vice understanding the wisdom of age. This to the detriment of society at large.

Recruiting Animal said...

I know lots of old people and none of them like being old and none are happy.

1. When you're old your body hurts. Half your life is going from doctor to doctor.

This can be a so-so problem for some people and complete hell for others.

2.Your friends die or get ill so you don't see them. Or you get ill and you can't see them. Either way, you're bored and lonely.

3. Your spouse dies. This is the worst part because then you're really lonely.