Do We Get Happier with Age?
If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard a thousand times, “Getting old is terrible: my body is falling apart, I can’t remember anything anymore, I need reading glasses, and everything is just harder to do.” Well, that may be true, our bodies do slow down and wear out as we age (and even faster if we abused our bodies in our 20’s, 30’s and 40’s with alcohol, drugs, poor food choices, and/or lack of regular exercise). Yet the question remains, does being happy in our old age have everything to do with the physical aspect of our health or does our attitude act as the real predictor of happiness?
Reviewing three different sources (a Gallup poll conducted in 2008 covering phone conversations with 340,000 people, a study conducted by Queen’s University in Belfast, and a study conducted by four researchers at the University of Virginia psychology department and published in The Journal of Positive Psychology), I found some interesting results…Apparently, as we mature and age, most young people (ages 18 and up) consider being “old” as a depressing time in their lives. A time when they can no longer run as hard, drink as much, stay out as long, or think as clearly. In short, younger people tend to think of life as being for the young, with old age as something that will just happen with time -- so you might as well get as much out of life as possible when you are able to.
If we set aside all the parameters of the studies, the many variables that could be argued, the different methods of collecting data, etc., we find that one perspective rings true: How you perceive aging dictates your level of happiness. In other words, if you face life’s inevitable consequences with a positive attitude rather than complaining about everything, you most likely will score higher on all happiness studies.
We all know that living through our younger adult years (16 through 25) can be very difficult, with many young adults feeling depressed, lost, and stressed. This can continue through until age 50 or so, when for many adults they begin to settle into a happier state on mind. Mind you, we are not speaking of all people, simply a sampling as conducted by these studies. Yet, it does indicate a pattern that with some education could very well lead to more awareness and, as such, more happiness in younger adulthood as people learn to control their lives.
One example from The University of Virginia study shows that cognitive functioning, which many of us think of as a predictor of happiness (i.e., as we lose our ability to think clearly and quickly we must be less happy), was just the opposite.
Cognitive functioning was divided into two areas: crystallized intelligence – “what you’ve learned, memories, your experiences,” and fluid intelligence – “reasoning, abstraction, making inferences.”
Crystallized intelligence was of little statistical importance when measuring happiness, yet fluid intelligence was significant. Fluid intelligence “degrades much faster as people age,” which during a younger adult’s life span is important, especially as it relates to his/her ability to work. Yet, as we age and we begin to slow down at work, we have less need to be as “sharp” which goes hand-in-hand with older adults refocusing on developing stronger relationships. So, the slide in fluid intelligence works out well as we age, thus allowing us to be happier emotionally, even though our bodies are slowing down and not allowing us to run as fast or jump as high as when we were younger.
The fact remains, we all will get older, our bodies will wear out, and part of our minds will slow down. If we can convince our younger population to stop smoking, eat healthier, exercise more, and learn to relax; they may experience happiness even before they get old.
Youth, in many ways, is wasted on the young. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.”
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