Remember teenager Richie Cunningham and his greaser friend, The Fonz, in the 1970s sitcom Happy Days? Life seemed so innocent: the jukebox, the milkshakes, the varsity jackets. Well, no need to get too nostalgic, because for people moving past 50, the happiest days may be still ahead.
“Study after study is showing that older people are happier than the middle-aged, and happier still than younger people,” says Laura Carstensen, PhD, a professor of psychology and public policy at Stanford University, where she is the founding director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.
The Paradox of Aging
At 21, a serious car accident landed Carstensen in a hospital room with three elderly women who were showing the ill effects of being unable to care for themselves. This first inkling of what it was like to be old set her on a career that examined aging. Along the way, she discovered something called the paradox of aging—that older people often have a better sense of well-being than everyone else.
From her work, Carstensen and her colleagues developed a theory as to why that might be. Socio-emotional selectivity means that as you grow older, and recognize that you are getting closer to the end, you focus on what matters now instead of the long-term goals that occupy younger people.
“As a result, older people find life less stressful, they worry less about the small stuff, they don’t get as angry, they don’t linger over negative feelings as much, they are better at reconciliation, and although they can be sad, they are better at accepting it,” Carstensen says.
The Secret: Fewer, Closer Relationships
A primary way older people demonstrate their focus on the now is by replacing a larger number of casual relationships with fewer, closer ones. They winnow out the people they used to think they had to tolerate, whether they liked them or not—people, perhaps, who could benefit them careerwise or socially. And with decreasing pressure to make every decision with an eye to the long term, they develop a more positive outlook.
The golden years, of course, are not all golden, and happiness does not
continue to grow into extreme old age. As people pass 70 or so, and
illness, infirmity, and, for some, loss of social status and declining
bank accounts begin to take their toll, the happiness curve levels off
and then heads down.
“But it never gets back to the level of younger people,” Carstensen says.
In fact, she says in her book, A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security In an Age of Increased Longevity, that “despite being flush with youthful vigor and opportunity, twentysomethings are the most depressed and stressed out of any age group.”
Happy Elders = Happy Society
As advances in science and technology continue to increase life expectancy and the age of the population (by 2030, the U.S. will have more people over 65 than under 15), one intriguing aspect of the happiness of older people is the effect it could have on society as a whole.
What if, as Carstensen suggests, that to help solve problems facing us on a national or even global scale, our society makes use of an ever-increasing segment of the population—one with a lifetime of experience and knowledge, that doesn’t anger easily, doesn’t stress over the small stuff, and is good at reconciliation?
The answer, she said, at a TEDxWomen talk she gave in 2011, is that we
could have a better society “than we have ever known.”
And wouldn’t that make everybody happy??