The U-Bend theory of happy aging

Here's my newest, sweetest theory of aging. Getting older is "a U-Bend."

It's the focus of an article given to me by a dear friend who's approaching 90 and is full of good humor and quick wit. He collects information and ideas and passes them forward with a smiling, "Read this when you have time."

The article was originally published in a December 2010 issue of "The Economist. It's titled "Age and Happiness: The U-Bend of Life?"

Here's the theory: When people start out in life, they are, on average, "relatively cheery." Adolescence has its challenges, and stress definitely rises in the early 20s. Frustrations mount as people approach middle age. According to the author, Andrew Oswald, worry and depression peak at age 46.

But then it starts to change. As people approach old age, despite the loss of "vitality, mental alertness" and the hair on their head, they gain self-awareness, satisfaction and a new kind of calm. They are (might I offer) heading back toward being cheery.

The U-Bend shows up in studies of global well-being. It's not just a theory recognized in these United States. If you control for wealth, employment status and children, the U-bend is still there. Evidence shows that older people are happier and have fewer disagreements with one another. They "come up with better solutions to conflict" and are more able to control their emotions. And they more easily "accept misfortune." The list of happiness-related attributes in the aging adult is longer, but I suspect you're beginning to get the idea.

If you choose to debate the U-Bend theory with suggestions that maybe "unhappy people just die early" or with examples of your highly depressed Aunt Edith, so be it. But maybe you could think about it like this. Consider a comment from one of the characters in a book by Edna Ferber, an (unmarried) American novelist who says, "Being an old maid is like death by drowning — a really delightful sensation when you cease struggling."

If that doesn't resonate with you, maybe this will. I'm reading a recently published book titled, "How Will You Measure Your Life?" by Clayton M. Christenson. He and his colleagues take a different route to explaining their theories about living a "purpose-full" life, but they seem to ultimately affirm the same U-Bend concept, suggesting happiness in later life is linked to the aging adult's understanding of "the difference between what to think and how to think," and the importance of "letting go" of the need to control situation and circumstance.

Or differently put, recognizing, early-on, that "the hot water that softens a carrot will harden an egg."

Life does not come with a blinking red light that says, "Important decision ahead." Every day we make tiny, value-based decisions along a personal moral line.

Happily aging people seem to have come to terms with the fact that life is a process, not a series of events. Happily aging people, the ones on the upward end of the U-Bend, "know what they stand for — and they stand for it all the time."

Know anyone like that? I suspect you do. Celebrate the gray.

Reach Sharon Johnson at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.


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