If you don’t believe in the U-curve of happiness, meet my mom
Don’t we all just want to be happy in life, more than anything else? Then why do so many of us dread getting older? Because the evidence shows, it’s a time in life when many of us return to being as happy as when we were kids.
Countless studies indicate that overall, we start out life happy, but then happiness starts to diminish in our 20s through midlife. Thankfully, it begins to recover around age fifty, and peaks at the end of life. If we chart our life’s happiness trajectory on a graph, it’s shaped like a smile or a soft U-curve, with our highest happiness years at opposite ends of our life. Thus, the name the U-curve of happiness.
Those sagging mid-years of life can be rough. Many of us are in the throes of raising a family, some are sandwiched between caring for children and aging family members. We’re trying to have a career and improve our earning power, pay the bills, save for our kids’ education, save for retirement. We’re trying to keep our marriage or relationships together.
But something changes once we get past midlife and have more years in the rearview mirror than in the road ahead. According to Laura Carstensen and her colleagues at the Stanford Center for Longevity, “As people age and time horizons grow shorter, people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments.” Another revelation from Carstensen’s work is that older people direct their cognitive resources more to positive information than negative. We become more optimistic.
I’m reminded of a 2014 essay in the Atlantic entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” by Ezekiel Emanuel, MD (brother of former Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel). Dr. Emanuel argues that people with high creative potential (i.e., Nobel Prize winners and other extreme achievers), peak around age forty or earlier, and thereafter productivity declines. In his thinking, Emanuel does not want to live past his years of peak productivity and will refuse life-prolonging health care at age seventy-five. But when the evidence shows we will become happiest in our older adult years, that our relationships become more enriching, that we focus more on the positive than negative, why would we not relish that stage of life – even if productivity wanes?
My mother is a great example of the U-curve of happiness. She had an idyllic childhood in the 40s-50s, married and raised a family in the 60s,70s & 80s. My father owned his business and traveled extensively leaving much of the childrearing to my mom. The marriage wasn’t perfect, but they stayed together for the long-haul.
When the kids were grown and my mother expected a leisure lifestyle, the economy and family finances took a turn and she reluctantly enrolled in a training program to become a hair stylist working into her sixties. That time of her life was difficult; she suffered bouts of anxiety and depression. But after retiring she began to enjoy life more.
When my father passed a few years ago at age ninety-three, my siblings and I moved my mom out of the family home and into a modest retirement community. She was eighty-five at the time. She’s now eighty-eight and I can’t recall a time when my mom was happier. Selling her home freed her from financial worries. She formed a wonderful group of new friends at the retirement home, and they enjoy going out socially. She started an exercise class that meets several times a week. She has a separate set of friends who meet weekly for a group meditation. She sees her children and other family regularly. She talks to her life-long best friend every week on the phone.
She even started dating. True story!
Recognizing we won’t live forever and that we have precious few years ahead changes our perspective on life in positive ways. Life gets better and we become happier. My mom recently said to me,
"I'm at the end of my life now and my purpose is to live each day with joy and love."
(Photo: Four generations, my mom, her 2nd-born daughter Tracey, granddaughter Kerri, and great granddaughter Annabelle.)
The late Andy Rooney of “60 Minutes” fame said, “It's paradoxical that the idea of living a long life appeals to everyone, but the idea of getting old doesn't appeal to anyone.” Knowing that life gets sweeter when there’s less of it could help dampen our fear of aging. We can carry that notion with us to buffet the inevitable losses of aging. If happiness is what we all desire most in life, then why not look forward to a time in life when we’re most likely to achieve that goal? And achieving a lifetime goal – now that’s peak productivity.
To learn more about the U-curve of happiness, check out The Happiness Curve, Why Life Gets Better After 50, by Jonathan Rauch.
More information coming soon about:
· Movement, Meditation and Conversations on Aging Workshop
· * New * Movement, Meditation and Conversations on Aging Book Club
Coming soon to Bloom Yoga Studio