How Happiness Changes As We Age
Want to be happier? As I have written so often before, older people are happier than other generations. People in their 70s are happier than those in their 60s and people in their 80s are happier than those in their 70s, according to researchers David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald who surveyed half a million people in the European Union.
Some of our happiness is a result of the way the brain ages; we experience less anger, less worry, and less stress. A significant portion of our happiness, however, depends on our own behavior. Our day-by-day choices. However, our assumptions and predictions about what makes us happy are almost always wrong – especially when we think more money, bigger houses, and promotions at work are the keys to happiness.
Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale, recognized that most students are overwhelmed, extremely stressed and sleep-deprived, and decided to do something about it. Santos created a new course, Psychology and the Good Life, to address the needs of students. She taught that if you want to be happier, you need to bring into your life five behaviors of very happy people. Of course, this is true whatever your age.
In this blog, I take a look at these five behaviors of very happy people and how practicing them is the same or different for us in the 70-plus generation. I’ve added a 6th behavior from my own research for my book, Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well and Finding Unexpected Happiness. And, of course, what makes us older people happy also changes as we age.
Five Behaviors of Very Happy People
1. Being Grateful.
Very happy people take time to express gratitude. They may start each day by noting 3 -5 things they are grateful for and they often express their gratitude to people who have helped them over the years.
Gratitude comes easily to us as we age. As we lose physical capabilities, paradoxically, we become more grateful for what remains. We become grateful for being able to walk, see, hear, taste, drive, eat, and even for being able to remember what we had for breakfast. All of which were taken for granted most of our life.
For example, my New Year’s Eve was all about gratitude. Eight of the ten of us who had gathered had lost our spouse. Some of us were on walkers. Some had hearing aids. Half of us no longer drive. Yet our toasts were all about gratitude for what we have: for new friends, for old friends, for feeling safe in our community, for growing up in a lucky generation, for our parents. Gratitude seems to be a part of the aging process.
2. Making Time to Connect with People.
Very happy people make spending time with friends and family a high priority. They connect to others daily and value time more than money.
Older people, unlike so many who are younger, have the gift of time. It is not business that keeps us from connecting with others. The pandemic, of course, has clipped our wings and made connection more difficult. We need to keep connecting by phone or by Zoom. And to always remember we are social animals. In fact, social isolation is also risky in terms of our health and well-being. Socially isolated people are about a third more likely to die than better-connected people.
3. Attending to Health Matters.
Very happy people make sure to get enough sleep and to exercise on a regular basis.
Many 70-plus people get enough sleep although insomnia does affect some of us. Modern medicine and Medicare enable most of us older people to lead active and pain-free lives. Many of us remain couch potatoes when it comes to exercise, even though we know that exercise is a miracle drug that improves our mental health. Others become exercise fanatics. I get far more exercise now than I did at age 40 because I have the time to take Zumba, Tai Chi, and dance classes.
Sooner or later, our health becomes a major focus. Taking care of our bodies can become almost a full-time job. And happiness can become hearing from the doctor, “You are not positive.” “Your numbers haven’t changed.” “It is not cancer.” “You are doing well.”
4. Being in the Present Moment.
Very happy people are mindful, noticing what they are doing and feeling moment by moment. They take time to savor and enjoy.
Older people have an easier time living in the present than younger folks who spend so much time thinking about their futures. Most of us older folks have ceased striving to make more money, to rise higher in our organizations, or to become famous. What a relief! We don’t make plans more than eighteen months out because our future feels so uncertain. Actually, we may live decades more. We also spend less time thinking about our pasts. When I conducted my research on people in their eighties, I learned that most of us have few or no regrets. By 80, we have made peace with our parents, our careers, and our failures.
However, what is happiness for most of us has evolved. Happiness no longer comes from extraordinary events like concerts, parties or ball games, hiking, and skiing, or traveling to exotic places. It is now found in ordinary small things. Take me for example. Happiness is now morning coffee and the newspaper, dinner with friends, phone calls from family, and evenings with Peter watching TV. Though I still dream of the Virgin Islands and Provence, I don’t need to go there to be happy. I used to be called Dynamite Gus by my grandfather. At my women’s group today I described myself as a contented cat.
5. Helping Other People.
Very happy people make time to help others. Frequent acts of kindness, large and small, make us happier, far happier than we imagine or predict.
Many people in the over-70 set are kind—it seems to go with the territory. I observe a culture of kindness among the people here in my retirement community. People visit those who are sick and bring groceries to those who don’t drive. They have tea with the lonely and drive friends to doctor’s appointments.
I believe, that no matter how old we are, we also flourish when we have some regular way of contributing to the common good. Older people today have much talent and wisdom that is not being used. As a society, we need to make it easier for older people to contribute to the public good—such as volunteering once a week at a soup kitchen or hospital, helping out at our church or temple, or working for a cause like prison reform.
6. Take Time to Grieve Your Losses.
I am adding this 6th behavior for older people to Professor Santos’ list. Grieving is a behavior that needs more attention and acceptance.
I’ve noticed that older people who radiate joy and happiness, are not people who have managed to escape losses. Rather, they are people who have taken the time to grieve their losses. They understand that there are no rules for grieving and no average timetable for mourning. They know there are all kinds of grief and sometimes grief is complicated. Recently, a lot has been written about ambiguous grief, grief that is unclear and that has no closure. It’s the kind of grief people experience during what can seem like an endless pandemic.
Grieving includes acknowledging losses and taking time to feel the array of feelings we actually feel. It means taking part in formal and informal rituals of mourning. And, somewhere in the process, finding meaning in the loss. On the whole, we Americans try to get over our losses as quickly as possible. We need to accept that grieving is not a quick fix. Nor is it optional. Taking time to grieve is essential to age well.