Happiness curve: Look forward to old age

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Happiness curve: Look forward to old age
People often underestimate the joy of old age.(Photo/Vlada Karpovich)
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By Kathryn Ziemer, Ph.D.

We’ve all heard of the midlife crisis: We think of the stereotypical middle-aged person buying a red sports car while trying desperately to cling to youth. Although this particular midlife crisis image might be more fiction than fact, data does back up a general trend that we all typically go through a “midlife slump.” According to a 2016 Brookings Institution study, people in their 40s and 50s do tend to have the lowest levels of life satisfaction out of any age group.

The valley of middle age

In midlife, people are often juggling many responsibilities, such as raising children, caring for aging parents and balancing work demands. This comes with a lot of stress; however, it’s probably not just the strain of life demands that leads to lower satisfaction. After all, most things in life that people find meaningful come with a certain amount of stress. The midlife slump is actually more about the difference between our happiness expectations versus the reality we experience.

When we’re young, we often dream big and expect to achieve great things. We have what’s called an “optimism bias” – we anticipate good things for ourselves in the future and we expect to get more pleasure out of things than we actually do.

But as life goes on, we may find that we don’t accomplish all the things we expected to. Or if we do, we find our accomplishments don’t make us as happy as we thought they would. We think that having certain trappings – like a prestigious job title, a high salary, a big house, a spouse – will make us happy. And some of these things can make us happy for a while.

But inevitably, we’re back to wanting more. This is what psychologists refer to as “the hedonic treadmill,” which is the never-ending cycle of returning to a certain level of happiness despite positive or negative events.

The paradox of aging

Over time, this gap between reality and our expectations can wear us down. Our reality in midlife may look very different from what we expected when we were in our early 20s. We come to see life as a series of obstacles to overcome rather than a journey to be enjoyed. By midlife, we’ve experienced enough of this disappointment that we assume our life satisfaction will continue on the same downward trajectory throughout our old age.

The good news is, for most people, this isn’t how life satisfaction unfolds. Rather, people’s happiness dips in their 40s but then goes up again after their 50s. Therefore, happiness over time isn’t a downward line. Rather, it’s actually shaped like a U-shaped curve, where middle age is the happiness trough.

This is “the paradox of aging” – everyone overestimates the happiness of youth and underestimates the happiness that comes with old age.

So why are older people happier? There are four key reasons:

Older people have less stress – Even before we retire, we tend to be less stressed in our 50s and 60s. This could be because we have less on our plate, but it also could be because we know how to manage stress better.

Older people know how to manage their emotions – We experience emotional highs and lows when we’re young. Extreme emotions might be exciting, but they can also be exhausting. As people age, they learn about themselves and figure out which coping strategies work for them and which don’t. Because older people know themselves better, they use the techniques that help them worry less and feel calmer.

Older people tend to feel less regret – With age comes a sense of acceptance about life. Because of their life experience, older people tend to accept the things they can’t control better than younger people. As a result, they tend to experience less stress and regret.

Older people tend to be more resilient – Life experience also comes with the added benefit of being able to put things into context. Older people have already experienced adversity and difficult events in life. This has allowed them to see how they’ve survived past challenges, which builds confidence for dealing with any current or future adversity.

So on your next birthday, if you find yourself feeling down about getting another year older, remember that your old age might be brighter than you think.

The writer is the founder and clinical director of Old Town Psychology, an award-winning psychology practice in Alexandria

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