September 22 2016
Happiness/Health & Wellbeing

What If We Didn’t Have to Fear Old Age?

aging with happinessMany 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.

Emotional Regulation

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.

 

 

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  • I love this. I often think about these things. One thing I’ve always found interesting is how some people, who have led pretty easy lives, so to speak, not a lot of tragedy, very functional upbringings, still struggle very much with the day to day challenges of life. Conversely, I know others who have been incredibly disadvantaged, yet they are remarkably content and generally very happy.

    Separately, I think that the ability to forgive is so important in determining one’s quality of life.
    It’s so important to be able to let go, and not be controlled by bitterness!

    Thank you for this post!

  • Thank you MMM. I agree. This is one of life’s great mysteries. Even with all other things being equal, why are some people at peace, while others struggle. Goes to show just how much of a difference perspective, mindset and gratitude can make. How much intention or control can we exert there – this is a line of thinking that occupies me a lot. xo -Linda
    Brooklyn Bread recently posted…What If We Didn’t Have to Fear Old Age?My Profile

  • LOVE this, Linda! Like you, I’m am generally very happy and content. And I’m grateful for that! I think it’s partly personality, but I’ve also made the choice to limit the negativity I allow into my life (like negative people, the news, etc.).

    Also, I can sooo relate to the last paragraph of your post! This happened to me in my late 30s – when I started to take taekwondo and, eventually, earned a black belt – my life completely changed. I faced so many fears throughout the whole process (and still do), but it’s given me the confidence to continue to do new things, things I previously never thought possible. It’s encouraged me to continue to learn, set high goals and grow. And I’m really happier than ever.

    And I definitely think you should write that novel!

  • Great post – I love the point on continuously learning. I’ve always felt that learning something new is key to what keeps me positive. When I start getting down its usually because I’m caught in a rut doing the same thing and haven’t had a chance to expand my mind.

    1. Chris @ KeepThrifty 05:45pm 28 September - 2016 - Reply

      Great post – I love the point on continuously learning. I’ve always felt that learning something new is key to what keeps me positive. When I start getting down its usually because I’m caught in a rut doing the same thing and haven’t had a chance to expand my mind.

      • Brooklyn Bread 08:25pm 28 September - 2016 - Reply

        Thanks Chris! This is an area where I have a lot of upside. Still not getting to spend as much time as I would like in this area… -Linda

    2. Amanda @ centsiblyrich 08:33pm 25 September - 2016 - Reply

      LOVE this, Linda! Like you, I’m am generally very happy and content. And I’m grateful for that! I think it’s partly personality, but I’ve also made the choice to limit the negativity I allow into my life (like negative people, the news, etc.).

      Also, I can sooo relate to the last paragraph of your post! This happened to me in my late 30s – when I started to take taekwondo and, eventually, earned a black belt – my life completely changed. I faced so many fears throughout the whole process (and still do), but it’s given me the confidence to continue to do new things, things I previously never thought possible. It’s encouraged me to continue to learn, set high goals and grow. And I’m really happier than ever.

      And I definitely think you should write that novel!

      • Brooklyn Bread 02:04pm 26 September - 2016 - Reply

        Oh thank you Amanda! You always have something nice to say – I hope if you ever find yourself in NYC we can grab a coffee! xo

    3. Brooklyn Bread 08:42am 23 September - 2016 - Reply

      Thank you MMM. I agree. This is one of life’s great mysteries. Even with all other things being equal, why are some people at peace, while others struggle. Goes to show just how much of a difference perspective, mindset and gratitude can make. How much intention or control can we exert there – this is a line of thinking that occupies me a lot. xo -Linda

    4. Mystery Money Man 11:16pm 22 September - 2016 - Reply

      I love this. I often think about these things. One thing I’ve always found interesting is how some people, who have led pretty easy lives, so to speak, not a lot of tragedy, very functional upbringings, still struggle very much with the day to day challenges of life. Conversely, I know others who have been incredibly disadvantaged, yet they are remarkably content and generally very happy.

      Separately, I think that the ability to forgive is so important in determining one’s quality of life.
      It’s so important to be able to let go, and not be controlled by bitterness!

      Thank you for this post!

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