Hidden Motives

A look at the hidden factors that really drive our social interactions

Happiness and Age

Why are we happier as we age?

A Personal View

A recent Gallup poll has found that people generally get happier as they age. Published two weeks ago, the survey reveals: "Worry stays fairly steady until 50, then sharply drops off . . . . Enjoyment and happiness both decrease gradually until we hit 50, rise steadily for the next 25 years, and then decline very slightly at the end, but they never again reach the low point of our early 50s." (See, "Happiness May Come With Age, Study Says.")

Researchers tried unsuccessfully to link the results to four variables: gender, living with children, having a partner, and employment. So the explanation is not obvious. But let me offer a personal view.

Our culture puts a premium on achievement. In order to take our place in the world, we need to have goals and, inevitably, we feel pressure to achieve them. But, as we age, that pressure diminishes. This happens in two ways: we actually get closer to achieving our goals as we work and struggle to understand better what it is possible to achieve. We learn about the world. And, then, those original goals lose their force. New experiences lead to other goals and interests. We acquire a better understanding of what matters and what we really want.

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In short, as we age, we have the opportunity to accept who we are, instead of focusing on who we feel we need to become. We relax into being ourselves. Our faces start to look like who we are. And the world settles into more and more familiar patterns. That acceptance brings diminished anxiety and a higher degree of enjoyment.

I am not talking about professional ambitions alone, but the kind of life goals that are common to most of us: raising children, owning a home, having a decent job, becoming competent at some skill, paying back our parents, helping others, caring for animals, making a contribution to our communities, being a good friend. I could go on, but such ambitions are the stuff of life. When we start out, we don't know for sure what we can achieve. We feel an urgency not fail, not only to gain the approval of others but also to approve of ourselves by succeeding at what we value - by doing what we can. But it is not until we are older that get begin to feel that we have gotten there.

Not everyone gets there, of course. Emotional conflicts, insecurities, and ambivalence get in the way. So do the accidents of life, war, financial setbacks, and illness. And some are luckier than others in finding opportunity. But, by and large, the statistics get better as more of us come to terms with our goals. My hunch is that the tipping point happens, on average, in the early fifties.

We can't work directly at being happy. It is a by-product of a satisfying life, a life well lived. But we do get better at living our lives, and that brings an increase in happiness.

 

Ken Eisold is a psychoanalyst and organizational consultant whose book about the unconscious, What You Don't Know You Know, came out in January.

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