I'm Not Happy. What's Wrong With Me?
Despite research showing that old people are happier, I'm not!
Posted March 30, 2018
I called one of my oldest friends—actually we met when we were 12—to congratulate her on her 80th birthday. At first, we talked platitudes. Then we got down to the real issue--she was sad. Her melancholy mood took precedence over the joyfulness she should feel on a big birthday. Her husband died six years ago and many of her close friends have died. She complained that she had been reading all the articles about positive aging, how people in their seventies and eighties are happier now, that they had experienced so many ups and downs that their experiences helped them put life in perspective. “Research be damned,” she said. “I know how I feel.” I realize that losing my friends is almost as difficult as losing John.” She continued sharing that she was no longer fun. She had aches and pains, went to bed early and generally was not the spirited person she had been. In addition to her depression, she felt inadequate; if everyone is so happy, what is wrong with me?
Janet’s conundrum raises two questions: How can we reconcile the research on aging and happiness with our personal feelings of loss? How can we continue enjoying life despite the losses all around us?
We must squarely face our negative, even sad, feelings as we age. Yes, it is true that some of our most significant relationships have ended. But no, it is not true that we cannot form new relationships no matter what age. And no, it is not true that we cannot develop new or modified purpose in life no matter what age. Some examples follow. Ruth moved into a retirement community when she was in her early nineties. She had been married several times and was now resigned to realizing her romantic life was over. Ruth is beautiful, plays the piano beautifully, plays bridge, and is actively engaged with her investments. To say the least, she is engaged. Soon after her arrival, a very attractive gentleman in his nineties asked her to join him for dinner. They became inseparable until his death.
Phil, a retired politician, lived in an assisted living facility. When I visited him, he had pictures of himself with presidents, congress people, and many CEOs. In so many ways, his life was diminished. His wife had died, he lived in a tiny room with s small microwave and clothes hung on a portable unit. I asked him directly, “Phil, how do you deal with your past when you were a celebrity with today?” His answer, “It’s simple.” And he told me the story. He sits by his window watching the staff pass by on their way to lunch often jumping over the rather tall bushes. When he witnessed a young woman falling he mobilized. He saw the problem and figured out a solution—cut a path through the bushes. He immediately called the owner of the facility and presented the situation. Within a few days, there was a new path through the bushes. Clearly this was an example of someone tailoring his purpose to fit this time in his life. For Phil, making changes where he lived became his new purpose.
In her New York Times column, “Finding Meaning and Happiness in Old Age,” Jane Brody pointed out the importance of continuing to engage in purposeful activities that fit with one’s current abilities and interests. She listed ways she can still contribute but in a modified way. And that is what all of us can do—project how we will live a full life even if our best friend dies, project how we will engage in meaningful activities even if we can no longer play the piano, drive a car, or adventure travel.