The "U-bend" of life: Does old age bring more wisdom and more happiness?

January 30, 2011

 

 

I attended a lecture recently in which the speaker was discussing “successful aging” and the idea that people actually become happier with age.  Recent research in psychiatry and economics charts out a course of emotional well-being that looks something like this:  when we are in our 20′s, the world is our oyster – we are chipper and optimistic that we can go out and do anything we want (and even if we aren’t currently working on doing anything, we tell ourselves that we still have our whole life ahead of us); when we are in our 30′s we start to confront the realities of our strengths and weaknesses, and/or the realities of the life path we have chosen and this often leads to less happiness/depression that continues a trend downward into the mid-40′s when around age 46 – things seem to turn around and by our 50′s and 60′s we are on an upward trend as we age towards greater contentment and happiness.  Researchers have started calling this phenomenon the “U-bend” – rather than the popular notion that with age we are on a linear, downward path to less and less happiness; it seems that around middle-age, things take a U-turn for the better!  Perhaps even more interesting, is that this trend is observed on a global scale – regardless of time period or country where people were brought up the trend is still there.  Researchers have also controlled for factors like amount of money and employment status in the U.S. and the U-bend is still there!

 

Why might this be?  The truth is, no one knows for sure, but given the information above, researchers have concluded that the U-bend is not the result of external changes or circumstances, but instead is the result of some sort of internal shift that happens to us as we age.  Older people have more health problems, and lose certain abilities like eye sight, hearing, and even mobility and yet studies show that older people are better at managing their feelings, accepting misfortune, and are less prone to anger.  One idea on why this might be that makes sense to me, is that the older we get, the more in touch we are with our own mortality and we begin to accept ourselves more, live more in the present, and have a desire to make the most out of the time we have left.

 

Plato said,  that with old age comes, “a great sense of calm and freedom. When the passions have relaxed their hold, you may have escaped, not from one master but from many.” Often we become slaves to belief systems about ourselves or about how life should be, but like Plato said, as we age, these beliefs (or passions) can loosen their hold on us and free us up to new ideas and ways of being.  One of my clients who is in her 60′s and undergoing a renaissance of hobbies, social life, and her career said to me recently, “I just realized that I don’t have to be miserable.  I think I want to be happy instead.” It was such an amazing insight into how her own beliefs had been historical baggage, and were no longer necessary.

 

I think this research on aging can be helpful on a few levels: one, it challenges our notions of what it means to grow older, a concept that is often feared and dreaded in people of all ages; and two, for those of us still on the younger side of the U-bend, or not yet experiencing its benefits on the other side, we can begin practicing the lessons of wise, old age now.  What can you do now to make the most of your time in the present?  If you are living from the point of view of living each day to the fullest what parts of your life would you start to move away from, and which parts would you start to move towards and enjoy more?

 

Thanks for reading!  As always, your comments and questions are welcomed!

 

If you are interested in learning more about current research on aging, check out this report from the National Institute on Aging:

http://www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/AgingUndertheMicroscope/default.htm