My 17 year old son, Max, came home from school one day a couple of years ago, and announced, “My social studies teacher is really old.” He emphasized the word really.
My curiosity piqued, I asked just how old he thought she was.
His reply: “Your age, Mom!”
I was 51 at the time.
In our culture, there is a cascade of fears across the years that colors our views of the very idea of aging. 50 year olds fear 70, 30 year olds fear 50, and so on down the line. If you had to guess which age group reports the highest life satisfaction, which group would you pick?
In a 2010 Gallup survey, 340,000 people were asked to rate their general sense of well-being on a scale from 0 – 10, where 0 represented “the worst possible life for you” and 10 “the best possible life for you.” Researchers plotted these answers by age on a graph, and found a surprising—and surprisingly robust—pattern that would be found again and again in many studies around the world.
As expected, 18 year olds reported a strong sense of well-being; after all, they had their whole lives ahead of them and lived in a culture that prizes youth. But researchers were surprised to find that those feelings of well-being quickly started decreasing with age, and kept going down, reaching bottom around the late 40s or early 50s, depending on the study. After that came another surprise. This “trough” was quickly followed by an upswing: feelings of well being started climbing right back up, and continued to climb the older the subjects got, with 82-85 year olds scoring even higher than the 18 year olds. In other words, despite the common perception, well-being went up in older age, not down. And this happened despite the fact that the oldest group was also the group dealing with the most medical issues, including chronic illnesses, and problems with hearing, vision, and mobility, not to mention attention and memory issues.
This pattern is known as the u-bend of well-being, because of the u-shaped direction of well-being through the adult years. While it’s important to note that this is “aggregate data,” and not true for everyone— there are some ecstatic 50 year olds and depressed 80 year olds—still, the u-bend has been found in many studies in many different countries through age 88. Interestingly, it has even been found in apes (whose well-being was measured by their trainers).
So, what might be going on, and, more important, what can we learn from it? In our book, Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths and Aging, my co-author, Dr. Jimmie Holland, and I explore what might be fueling this u-bend phenomenon. Jimmie is an 88 year old psychiatrist from Texas and I’m a 53 year old clinical psychologist from New York City. So we looked at this question from both the high and low ends of the well-being curve. Why does well-being hit the bottom around my age, and why does it hit the top at hers?
If life were The Brady Bunch—a television show known to many of my generation—we middle agers would be Jan, the middle child: less interesting than Marcia, the eldest, not as cute as Cindy, the youngest. We’re known as the “sandwich generation,” sandwiched between parents and children, careers and social obligations. One of the women we talked to described her life as feeling more like a panini, getting squeezed from all sides. Also, during these years, many of us start dealing with mortality more seriously than before, as parents may get sick or die. And on top of all these challenges, we live in a youth-obsessed culture that constantly gives us the message that it’s all downhill from here. No wonder we’re stressed.
The good news is, that message isn’t necessarily true. The reason we assume it’s all downhill is because we tend to focus on those potential losses and incapacities of later life, without appreciating the possible gains. But they’re there if you look for them. When I asked members of our Aging and Illness support group how their perspectives had changed since their younger years, one man in his seventies laughed: “I didn’t have perspective when I was younger!” Another time, 90-something Helen told our group, “I came out of my shell at 70.” And when 97 year old psychoanalyst Hedda Bolgar was asked by an interviewer what her favorite time of life had been, she answered simply: “Now.”
As we gain perspective through the years, we learn to “travel light,” carrying less emotional baggage, and being less afraid of what others think of us. Studies suggest elders have not only greater knowledge of the world, but are better poised to appreciate it. Novelist Margaret Atwood described the wisdom that comes with age this way: “Good judgment comes from experience. But experience comes from bad judgment.” (AARP Magazine, September/October 2009; italics mine) Elders have had more years during which to make mistakes, and, thus, more chances to learn from them, and to learn to better accept their fallibility in the first place.
As we reach older age, we also gain a different perspective of time, recognizing that we have less time ahead of us than behind us. This may be scary to some, but liberating for many, as psychologist Lara Carstensen found. Recognizing that time is limited helps us live in the now and focus on those aspects of life that mean the most to us, like our relationships and causes, and our ability to find beauty in the world, sometimes in the simplest moments. When the support group was talking about mortality one day, Helen told us, “My papers are in order, my will and all that. Only, I just got four chairs recovered in my apartment. I want to stick around at least to see how they look with the new covers!” (She would get to keep sitting on them for years.) Research also suggests we find it easier to forgive as we get older.