What is the happiest age group? Perhaps the late teens, early twenties or early thirties?
Research on the happiness of different age groups in the UK has found - surprisingly, it might seem at first - that it's actually the over 60s. This research showed that happiness levels are quite high in the 20s, then dip through the 30s and reach their lowest point in the mid-forties. But after 50, they start to rise, and continue rising through the 60s, when they become even higher than young people's. Similarly, a recent world wide survey found that, so long as they are in fairly good health, 70 year olds throughout the world are on average as happy and mentally healthy as 20 year olds. (1)
These findings seem almost counter-intuitive. In our youth-obsessed culture, we associate old age with decay, illness and loss - the loss of our health, the loss of our loved ones, and eventually the loss of life itself. Unlike other societies around the world - where the old are revered and seen as wisest - we tend to side-line the old, to put them out of sight in nursing homes. It's almost as if, since we value appearance so highly, we're embarrassed by their age-worn faces and bodies. And perhaps, since we place such a high value on being active and productive, we don't value the old because they're no longer so busy making and doing.
So what a wonderful surprise to find that the elderly are so happy!
Perhaps this is partly because the lives of the elderly are less stressful and laden with responsibility. They're free of the struggle to succeed in their careers, and of the emotional and financial struggles of parenthood. However, I believe the main reason for the happiness of old age is related to the subject of my previous blog: letting go. One of the authors of the above studies, Andrew Oswald, hinted at this by suggesting that one of the findings was that in old age ‘individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and in mid-life quell their infeasible aspirations.'
In fact, the happiness of old age is a good illustration of the fallacy of our culture's normal view of happiness. We fear old age because we see it as a process of loss, of having to let go of things which we depend on for our well-being. But it's this very process which actually causes the well-being of our later years.
In old age, a large number of the psychological attachments which normally support our sense of identity fall away. One of the major ones is the attachment to hopes and ambitions. At the end of their working lives, knowing that they may not have many years left, old people stop imagining alternative futures for themselves. They stop striving to become something else, and begin to accept themselves and their lives as they are. Rather than living for the future, they become more present-centred. In addition, they're likely to lose their attachment to their appearance, to become free of the pressure to ‘look good' and to stop using their looks as a way of seeking affirmation. They're also forced to give up their attachment to our careers, along with the status and identity they gave. And now that their children have left home, they're forced to give up their role as parent-carers too.
Of course, these losses can be painful, at least initially. And we've all met old people who never recover from them. They become bitter and cynical, wishing they were young still young and attractive, that they still had their jobs to make them feel valued and important, or that their lives had turned out differently.
But for many others, this process of letting go brings a new authenticity. It brings them into contact with their ‘core selves', the essence which was obscured by all of these attachments. Now that they're no longer focussed on finding happiness outside themselves, they begin to find it inside. They begin to realise that they don't actually need external things for their happiness, and find a natural contentment in simply being.
The good news is that we don't have to fear old age. In fact, it's a stage we should look forward to. True, our health may not be as good, and our energy levels may not be as high, but it can also be a time of liberation and lightness - and above all, of true well-being.
1. Oswald, A., and Blanchflower, D. (2008). ‘Is Well-Being U-shaped over the life cycle?' Social Science and Medicine 66 (6), 1, 733-49.