The Survey Says: Getting Older=Getting Happier
Many people think of youth as the most carefree time in a person’s life, when financial worries, family responsibilities, and romantic entanglements are either at a minimum, or far in the future. As it turns out, recent research shows that after we turn 50, we get progressively happier and experience less stress!
This connection between age, stress, and happiness is supported by a Gallup Global Emotions poll published in 2019, which found that as those surveyed got older, they also reported less overall life stress.
Journalist Jonathan Rauch’s 2018 book The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50 rounds up the research on this trend. Rauch found that people’s reported levels of happiness were highest at age 20, bottoming out in their 40s and 50s, then ballooning upward as they reached their 80s. The data curve, surprisingly, resembles an actual smile.
Here are some of the possible reasons behind this smile-shaped phenomenon:
We adjust our expectations
As we get older, we become more realistic about what we can achieve in our lifetime, the value of those achievements, and how happy they will actually make us feel. In the years that pass, many of us realize that, above all, it’s important to focus on what brings us happiness.
As we make choices in life a, certain childhood dreams, whether it’s becoming an astronaut, living in France, or writing the Great American Novel, will remain unfulfilled. But as we age, knowing we are focusing on what makes us happy is a reassuring feeling. We can focus on the values and activities that mean the most to us, whether that is going to church, spending time on a hobby, or playing with our grandchildren.
We gain a sense of perspective
We all know that becoming older makes us wiser, and while everyone may have their own definition of wisdom, sociology professor Monika Ardelt defines it as three distinct elements: insight gained over time about living well; the ability to look at events from a new perspective; and increased compassion for others.
As we age, Ardelt said, we develop insight and knowledge into what we personally need to be happy and content. We also gain a better understanding of other people’s motivations and personalities, which allows us to feel more sympathy for them.
We become better at coping with stressful changes
When we’re young, we tend to adopt a black-and-white way of thinking, imagining every life event as either a tragedy or a success. But many learn over time that stressful change is part of life, whether that means divorce, moving across the country, a family member passing away, a breakup with a romantic partner, dealing with an illness, or losing a friendship.
Realizing this, we can balance our way of thinking, focus on the present, and manage our emotions more gracefully as we navigate difficult life changes.
We change the way we socialize
Laura Carstensen of Stanford University is the author of socioemotional selectivity theory, which states that as we age, we become more selective in how we spend our time and with whom. On the other hand, younger people tend to believe their time is limitless and are often less discriminating in how they spend it.
In the past, we may have felt an obligation to deal with stressful people in our lives so as not to be rude. But as we get older, we understand it is acceptable to remove ourselves from a situation if we are uncomfortable, even if we may appear unfriendly. Overall, when we get older, we tend to be more selective about who we socialize with and to feel less guilty about it.
Our brains can change
It may be surprising to learn that the human brain’s structure is not fixed and static. That’s due to the concept of neuroplasticity: our brains can actually change form. In his book Super Brain, integrative medicine pioneer Deepak Chopra explains how our brains can increase the number of neurons and alter the connections between them.
As we age, we can begin to enhance and power these biological processes on our own by thinking in a more positive and mindful way. Chopra names yoga and meditation as his go-to mindfulness practices.
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