What If We Didn’t Have to Fear Old Age?
Many people despair at the idea of growing old. I am old enough now that I’ve witnessed some of the people I know and love change quite a bit with age. They have evolved into less happy versions of their younger selves.
I can say very honestly that the thought of becoming less happy is a million times more terrifying to me than the thought of getting older.
But what if, instead of dreading old age, we could look forward to a time when we will be happier than we are now?
Well, I have good news: science says that there is no reason why we should not. A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showed that happiness actually increases with age. Somehow, even while the idea of inching closer to your curtain call is intrinsically sad, older people are generally happier than younger people. To me, this information is as sweet a relief as a slice of watermelon in August.
I’m a happy person. I am not sure exactly why. Perhaps my brain is tuned correctly to realize that, given the heart-breaking suffering in this world, I hit the jackpot in life and I damn well ought to be happy. Perhaps I simply decided to be happy. Of course, it’s possible that the chemicals in my brain are calibrated just right so that I feel a chemistry-induced happiness. Whatever the reason, I am grateful to be content and I am committed to preserving this state of being as long as possible.
Why do some people grow sadder as they age, while others become happier?
This may be the most important question a person could ask. How do we cultivate our brains so that we arrive where science says we have every right to end up — at a happier place. If a person’s family continues to be healthy, their financial security remains relatively steady and they do not suffer any clinical depression, why does that bitterness still take hold for some?
According to the authors of the study, factors such as empathy, compassion, self-knowledge, openness to new ideas, decisiveness, emotional regulation and an emphasis on helping others, can all contribute to happiness later in life.
At a bridal shower for my cousin recently, we were all asked to write down a bit of marriage advice. I only half-jokingly wrote “always keep everything bottled up inside until you explode.” I’m sure she had a laugh, but to be honest, I do tend to keep small annoyances to myself rather than air each and every real or imagined injustice.
My natural state is emotionally steady. Probably to a fault, but no one’s perfect. I’m working on speaking up more because it’s important to communicate with those you love. But being free from angers, hurts, arguments and resentments is an extremely pleasant way to go through life. I have a feeling the benefits are compounded later on.
Goals, Regret & Wisdom
People who are happier as they age tend to focus on more meaningful goals, like nurturing relationships and spending time with loved ones. We can learn from this wisdom at any stage of life. As we age, we can develop the perception that life’s possibilities are drying up. Indeed, if we focus on goals not accomplished, with expiration dates long passed, it can drain our hope and optimism. Rumination and regret are a poison cocktail.
But if, instead, your brain cells are occupied with dreams of taking a trip to someplace you have never been with someone you love, or teaching your grand-child how to fish, or learning French, the inherent possibility that exists in life remains in view.
Living and Learning
People often depressingly think that learning is something only students do. Yes, children’s brains grow so exponentially that they’re able to learn in an incredible way. But that doesn’t mean we should ever stop learning, or experiencing new things.
I’ve been teaching myself how to play the ukulele – thanks YouTube! I love how it feels to tap into this unused part of my brain. It feels a lot better than Twitter, for sure. I’ve always loved birds and I got up the nerve to go on a few bird-watching walks recently. It was so much more enjoyable than I even would have imagined, hearing an experienced bird-watcher impart her knowledge about these creatures that I love to look at.
New experiences and ideas nourish our feelings of possibility and wonder. Those things will fade with neglect.
The Beginner’s Mind
Cultivating an openness to new ideas is easy when you’re young. But as we age it becomes harder to let go of those preconceived notions and thought patterns that endlessly loop through our brain. Looking at life differently, looking at people differently and acting differently can be a monumental feat, once our stupid and fearless years have passed.
Think about a sibling saying something at Thanksgiving dinner that raises your blood pressure. Are you reacting only to what was just said? Of course not. You’re reacting to a lifetime of things that have been said. A stranger listening in probably wouldn’t understand the offense. Human beings cannot be expected forget all their history, but how much lighter we would feel if we could at least let go of some of the burdensome bits. Happy 80 year olds have long since dumped their baggage.
I have always thought that if I could ever write a novel, I know just what my theme would be. To me there is nothing more poignant that the idea of someone past the corner of middle age, who finds the courage to do something new. To get out of their own mental prison and make a frightening change. This is probably the hardest thing in the world. But it is possible. Until you stop breathing, anything is possible.
© 2015 Angel. All rights reserved