For centuries, sages have alluded to a richness in life's later years that is lost on the young. But only in the last decade have researchers begun to measure happiness across the life span and, in doing so, try to understand why older people tend to be so content.
The explanation doesn't appear to be biological, rather most scientists now think that experience and the mere passage of time gradually motivate people to approach life differently. The blazing-to-freezing range of emotions experienced by the young blends into something calmer by later life, numerous studies show. Older people are less likely to be caught up in their emotions and more likely to focus on the positive, ignoring the negative.
The insult that has your blood boiling for three days at age 20 may not even register a spike in blood pressure at age 60. And despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that anyone with gray hair has likely experienced his or her fair share of suffering, older folks are also adept at transcending bad memories.
Why people regulate their emotions better as they age, may be due in part to school-of-hard-knocks experiences. Eventually they learn the world will not end when the car breaks down or the child gets strep throat.
The later stages of life also offer more opportunities to actively avoid those parts that are stressful or upsetting. And as people come to appreciate the fragility of life, they also tend to put more value on it.
An appreciation of remaining time leads older people to be more grateful for what they have, researchers say. And being thankful is great for mental health.
Studies by Robert A. Emmons , a psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, show that people who focus on what they are grateful for have better emotional well-being, especially a positive mood, compared with people who focus on the negative or neutral information.
"When you focus on gratefulness, you see that other people are providing you with support and value you," says Emmons, author of the book, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. "You see that good stuff doesn't just happen randomly. It helps you make sense out of life. Grateful people see their lives as gifts."
Being able to forgive is the flip side, he adds. "It helps reduce negative emotions like anger and resentment."
Why does the idea of being most happy in old age come as a shock to young and old alike? Psychological science has a reason for that, too. We humans are terrible at predicting what will make us happy.
Younger people tend to think that happiness is getting what you want: a fabulous body, great job, true love, a nice place to live and a good ride. No one should dismiss the hopeful dreams of the young, but it's just not that simple, experts says.
The rare younger people who experience the rich happiness common to their elders may be those who have recovered from life-threatening illness or addiction. They have come face-to-face with the "shrinking time horizon" that older people routinely live with.
So combining the mental shrewdness of youth with the ability to savor life might be a successful recipe for contented living — whatever one's age.
(c) 2007, Los Angeles Times