“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands …” If everyone were to sing this well-known ditty, which age groups would clap the loudest? 1-5 year olds? 10-20 year olds? 40-50 year olds? 70-80 year olds?
If you were to read John Persico’s blog post from earlier this week (and he’s not always as negative as this), you would definitely think that it must be the 40-50 year olds, those at the peak of achieving the goals they started in their youth. He suggested that youth is a time of “getting” (friends, education, a career, a spouse, kids, a home, promotions, status, etc.), whereas old age is a time of “losing” (our careers, friends and family as they pass away, teeth, hair, eyesight, hearing, flexibility, dexterity, balance, our knees, our hips, our homes because we can’t climb the stairs, and our money to pay for hospitals and extended care). Talk about grim!
The reality is that if you guessed the 40-50 year old group clapped the loudest because they’re the happiest, you’d be dead wrong. Quite the contrary. According to numerous research studies and surveys, the very youngest and the seniors are the happiest. It would be the 1-5 year olds and their grandparents who would be clapping the loudest.
How can this be true? Well, along with the “getting” stage of life (education, friends love, kids, career, home ownership, etc.) comes stress, lots of stress. And it starts awfully early these days. There’s self-doubt, bullying, homework, exams, the pressure to win, deciding what career to pursue, mortgage payments, bills to pay, raising kids, personality conflicts, competing schedules, unreasonable bosses, and all kinds of other stressors. Of course, there are intense moments of joy and gratification along the way, but we’ve inserted a remarkable amount of stress into our modern lives. Too much. Surely more than is necessary.
If we compare the stress of life during the “getting” scenario with the “losing” stage of life described so brutally in John Persico’s blog, we start to see the advantages that come with age. It is undeniably the case that as we age, our aging bodies do slow down. We can no longer do all the things we used to be able to do. How do we come to terms with that reality, and why is it not a reason to be unhappy?
First of all, let’s keep in mind that many people encounter physical impediments early in life – some even start their lives with challenging disabilities – and they manage to live successful, fulfilling lives with those disabilities. Their lives are not diminished; they are changed. They are defined by what they can accomplish, not by what they cannot accomplish. They contribute to their community through their abilities and actions, just like everyone does. Why should someone who has had the advantage of having been able-bodied throughout his or her life feel hard done by when their body starts to bring more challenges? This is when we should stop and appreciate the fact that we’ve been able to be physically active for so long and think about how to redefine our lives within our new parameters. Who knows what new interests and abilities might emerge?
For most people who manage to make it to the “losing” stage of life, sometimes known more positively as the Golden Years, the experiences gained from a lifetime of living bring some impressive benefits:
- An increase in accepting yourself for who you are. We’ve gotten past wishing we were someone else: that we were smarter, or wittier, or richer, or thinner or heavier, or taller or shorter, or had more hair. Most of us have gotten past any disappointment we may have had in our careers or past relationships, or decisions that we regretted. We’re comfortable with who we are, warts and all. Boy, it takes a long time to reach that point!
- The ability to live in the present as opposed to the future. Until you reach this exalted phase of life, the future is always ever-present. Should I be working harder to get that promotion? Are we giving our kids all the extras they need to be successful? The questions are always there about what the focus needs to be to ensure the future you think you are aiming for. Living in the present is remarkably calming by comparison.
- The recognition that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and that it doesn’t matter. You don’t even need to try; just be yourself! Who knew?!
- The realization that life is finite and therefore let’s be grateful for every day.
- The wisdom that comes from a lifetime of experiences, including both the ups and down of life.
There are several versions of the Happiness Curve, as well as several books on the subject, including Jonathan Rauch’s The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. There are a number of adages in the book, including a response to the seemingly contradictory observation that in your 40s and 50s, with power, potential, and productivity at their peak, you’re at the bottom of the happiness curve. The response that resonated best with me, as a 70-80 group member, was “the day you accept you’re free to quit trying comes as a relief”!
Of course, part of the angst of aging is tied up with fear of death. I recognize that. There is a sense among some people that as they age they are no longer the person they were and they just can’t get past it. They just don’t like it one bit; their sense of self is tied up in what they could do well at one point in time. Their feeling is, “What’s the point?” And I recognize that I can’t help those people get past that feeling, even though I’d like to.
I also realize that many younger people have a fear of death, although not for themselves – because they still feel like they will live forever – but for the older people in their lives. And some young people are almost fearful of being with older people because it reminds them that we don’t live forever, and they don’t want to be reminded of this. What a shame; the generations have so much to offer each other.
I may have a different perspective on this than many people because my parents both died in their 50s. I learned when I was young that life is finite – and it’s not always fair – but it’s yours to make something of, just as my parents did with their shortened lives. Because of that background, I never expected to live past my 50s, and I am most decidedly grateful for every day. Reaching old age is a gift that is not given to everyone. Like every other stage of life, it comes with its challenges and rewards. But, as can be seen from the happiness curves, those of us who have been given that gift are, by and large (unless you live in Russia!), a surprisingly contented lot. We have a lifetime of experience to share with family and community according to our abilities; new opportunities and joys await.
My wish for everyone is that you make it to an old age. As they say, it’s better than the alternative.