Happiness In Old Age: Why Are Those Over 70S So Happy?
What is the most satisfying age range? Maybe the late teens, early 20s, or early 30s. A study looking at happiness among various age groups in Britain found -- surprising, you may think at first -- that the highest number is in fact those in their sixties.
This study found happiness levels are fairly high in their twenties, before falling off in the 30s, reaching a nadir in the mid-40s. But after the 50s, they begin to climb, continuing their upward climb into the 60s, by which time they are higher even than those of the younger cohorts. Similarly, a recent global survey found that, as long as they are reasonably healthy, global 70-year-olds are, on average, about as happy and psychologically fit as their 20-year-old counterparts. These findings seemed almost counterintuitive.
In our culture, obsessed with youthfulness, we associate aging with deterioration, disease, and loss of our health, the loss of loved ones, and ultimately, the loss of life itself. Unlike other societies across the globe - where older people are respected and seen as wiser - we tend to marginalize older people, keeping them in the shadows of retirement homes. It is almost like because we place such value on physical appearance, we are ashamed of their aging faces and bodies. And maybe, because we value being active and productive so much, we don’t appreciate older people since they aren’t so committed to making things and doing things anymore.
So it was such a great surprise to discover the elderly are incredibly happy! Perhaps it is in part because life is not as stressful or loaded with responsibilities for older people. They are not burdened by the struggles of achieving success in a career, nor by the emotional and financial struggles of parenthood. However, the biggest reason I think that they are happier as seniors is related to a topic from “letting go.”
One of the authors of the study mentioned above, Andrew Oswald, hinted at this, suggesting one of the findings was that, as people get older, they learn to adjust to their strengths and weaknesses, while mid-life they suppress their unachievable ambitions. Indeed, happiness at older ages is a fine illustration of a flaw in the common cultures conception of happiness. We are afraid of old age because we view it as a loss process, the need to give up things that we have come to rely upon for our wellbeing. But this same process is what really causes our well-being in later life.
As we get older, large numbers of psychological attachments that usually sustain our sense of identity are falling away. One of the main ones is the attachment to hopes and ambitions.
At the end of a working life, knowing that they might not have years left, older adults cease to envision alternate futures for themselves. They stop striving to be anything different and start accepting themselves and their lives as they are. Instead of living in the future, they become more focused on the now.
In addition, they are likely to lose their attachment to their physical appearance, to be released from pressures to look good, and to cease using their physical appearance as a means to seeking validation. They are also forced to abandon attachments to our careers, together with the status and identity that these provide. And now their children are out of home, they are forced to relinquish even their roles as parents-caregivers.
Of course, those losses can be hurtful, at least at first. And we have all met older folks who have never recovered from them. They grow bitter and cynical, and they long for the days when they were younger, when they were still youthful and compelling, when they still had jobs that made them feel valued and important, or when their lives had turned out different.