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.