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The Four Common Traits of Happy Baby Boomers

Learnings from the longest longitudinal study of human development in history.

The longest longitudinal study of human development in history delivers some good news for our third act of life: our lives continue to evolve in our later years, and often become more fulfilling than before.

Begun in 1938, the Grant Study of Adult Development charted the physical and emotional health of over 200 men, starting with their undergraduate days at Harvard University. (Harvard wasn’t coed at the time.) The group of researchers tracked the students for the next few decades, measuring, testing and interviewing them every few years to see how lives developed. The now-classic book Adaptation to Life reported on the men’s lives up to age 55, offering key insights into how adults matured.

As described in his follow-up book Triumphs of Experience, George Vaillant, Director of the Study of Adult Development at Harvard’s Health Services Center, followed the men into their nineties, documenting what life was like for them in their later years. The findings? People who are content in last third of life were not always so in their second, contradicting the widespread belief that older folks are as a rule sad and depressed whose best years are behind them. Marriages bring much more contentment after age 70, the study also reported, dispelling the myth that people who have been together for a long time eventually get tired of each other. The ability to move on from professional or personal disappointments was key to being happy, Vaillant found, with carrying regrets around for decades leading to a woulda-coulda-shoulda orientation to life. Savoring the things that had gone right was instrumental to later life, affirming the importance of seeing a partially filled glass as half-full rather than half-empty. Knowing that one had found meaning and purpose in life was understandably of great satisfaction, even if it took quite a while for that to happen. Interestingly, those who had had the capacity to establish intimate relationships with other people were not just more content but lived longer, proof positive of the importance of being engaged socially as we get older.

In addition to spearheading the Grant Study, Vaillant has spent much of his career analyzing the relative happiness of baby boomers (in part to gain a better understanding of his father’s depression). Vaillant has determined there are four common traits of happy boomers: empathy (relating to other people); engagement (continuing to remain curious about life); hope (optimism for the future); and gratitude (appreciation for gifts and simple pleasures). Happily, so to speak, one can usually do something about how sanguine one is likely to be later in life, meaning we do not have to be victims of our genetic disposition. “We can keep changing and improving and become happier throughout life,” he wrote in Triumphs of Experience, challenging the prevailing view that older people tend to look back on their lives rather than forward to what may come next.

Surrounding oneself with positive people is boomers’ best strategy to be joyful in their third act, with love and support from others a far more effective anti-aging technique than any pill or treatment. Boomers often experience increased happiness when they take on the role of mentor or friend and dedicate themselves to caring for the well-being of others. Those boomers who say that they’ve never been happier in life are the ones who wake up each day with a mission (often revolving around serving others) and are able to tap into a support system of close friends and family to help out if or when times get tough.

If there’s any single most important implication from Triumphs of Experience, it’s that boomers who are able to frame events in their lives in positive ways will be happier, more contented people in their third act. Those with flexible and positive personal narratives, i.e., the stories they told themselves, will be more likely to “age well,” with those feeling they took a wrong turn on their life journey more prone towards experiencing mental and physical health problems. What boomers think of their lives depends much on how successfully they have come to terms with any regrets, in other words, with a wide variety of strategies available for making peace with missed opportunities. The way to emotional wellbeing is to cultivate optimism and resiliency as life brings its challenges, according to Vaillant, with adapting to rather than resisting change a very good thing for boomers to do if they can.

A new study suggests that most boomers are already experiencing triumphs of experience. Seventy-four percent of Canadian boomers are “in complete optimal mental health,” research by a University of Toronto professor reveals, meaning they are happy almost every day. Compared with millennials, boomers are more likely to have financial security, to be in a firmly established relationship, and to be anchored and less likely to be in flux, all major contributors to one’s happiness quotient.

Interestingly, according to this 2016 study, the true secret to a happy, healthy state of mind at any age is having a confidante, with “complete optimal mental health” much more likely if one has someone to confide in (someone who’s there for you and provides a sense of emotional security and wellbeing). Memo to readers seeking a sense of bliss in their third act: find a BFF (Best Friend Forever) if you don’t already have one!

More from Lawrence R. Samuel Ph.D.
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