The older we get, the more we are told to embrace our age. To take pride in the decades we’re notching up. Yet most of us tend to ignore these exhortations to be loud and proud about getting older. On the contrary, we continue to mark birthday milestones in denial mode.
I fear that if by some chance I make it to 100, I may not revel in my superager status. I worry that I won’t be proclaiming, “I’m a centenarian!” Or saying smugly, “This is what a century looks like.” Instead I could be wearing a silly badge that says “100 is the New 80”.
Fortunately, I have found a reason to ditch denialism about birthdays. I’m not saying that this will necessarily make you embrace aging with gusto. But perhaps it could help in coming to terms with death’s inevitability.
I’m referring to the positive effect that aging has on happiness. This been repeatedly confirmed by scientific studies.The findings put me in a good mood.
Studies on Happiness + Aging
Research indicates that the ages of 23 and 69 are the two points in life when people tend to experience the greatest unhappiness. Several studies confirm that life’s most common down times are in your early 20s and in your late 60s to early 70s.
A study published by the London School of Economics showed that happiness declines before and increases after middle age. Further research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies pinpoints the nadir of unhappiness at age 46. It is in the years after this low point that happiness starts to increase. And happiness continues to rise steadily through the next decades.
The U-Shaped Theory of Happiness
So if friends and family under 50 are feeling blue, tell them to hang in there. They should look forward to their golden years. This is because of what is known as the U-shaped Theory of Happiness. It is driven by “unmet aspirations which are painfully felt in midlife but beneficially abandoned later in life”, according to Happiness Researcher Dr. Hannes Schwandt. The academic from Princeton University advises that we could all learn a bit from the elderly. It is this age group that shows the least regret about how they have lived their lives.
Edith Piaf said – or rather sang – it best. The French chanteuse died at the lowest point on the happiness chart, aged 47, so she had little experience of happiness or aging. Yet she concluded in her famous ballad looking back on her life: “No, I regret nothing.” (“Non, je ne regrette rien” in French.)
Sadly, there is too often disregard for Piaf’s motto. Regret abounds, peaking in late middle age. Embracing the No Regrets philosophy usually only kicks in as we settle into old age.
Acceptance is key
The power of No Regrets vindicates the findings of another study. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, it shows that happiness in older people is strongly linked to acceptance. Accepting what you cannot change in your life boosts happiness. We would all do well to follow the advice of American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”
– Serenity Prayer
Happily Ever After – not
I am sorry to now break up this happiness fest to tell you some unhappy news. This U-Shaped story does not end happily ever after. The upward happiness trend does not carry on until the grave. These studies show that happiness usually dips in the last few years of life.
Why? The researchers are still speculating about reasons. I have no qualifications in Happiness Research, but it strikes me that one obvious cause could be the physical and cognitive decline, disability and/or disease that hits many older people. The challenges of aging can be a downer no matter how happy you’ve been feeling at the zenith of the U.
There could be other factors contributing to the decrease in happiness in the home stretch of one’s life. Perhaps one factor is simply that those who are less happy tend to die earlier?
There are many studies linking feelings of wellbeing to longevity. Or maybe people scoring highest on the Happiness Researchers’ surveys in late life had been on the top end of the Happiness Scale since childhood.
Ever happier, ever more of us
Whatever the causes, we do tend to get happier as we age. And more of us are doing it now than ever before in human history. We expected the world to get more crowded, but with declining birth rates and improved health care it’s the elderly taking up space in their burgeoning numbers.
When I first started writing this blog in 2013, more than 800 million people, 11% of the world’s population, were over 60. By 2050, about 2 billion people worldwide are projected to be over 60. The percentage will have doubled to 22% of the global population.
There will soon be more people over 60 than children under 15. Yet another challenge is that developing countries like ours have had large and growing numbers of youth, but now these countries’ populations are aging fastest.