Why Am I Getting Happier As I Get Older?
Our societal and personal narratives on our aging are at odds. Are we bored or content, selfish or stewards, irrelevant or essential?
The societal message is that midlife represents the start of a death march full of disease, decrepitude, and desolation. But, as these graphs show, the reality is a different story (except in Russia, which is no place to retire). And to be clear, the U-curve of happiness isn’t some feel-good promise at a New Age workshop. Social science research demonstrates that a midlife dip in life satisfaction is real, but life gets better with time.
So, why and how does life get better and happier in our 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s? Here’s my top 10 list of probable causes (of course, these don’t apply to all of us; your mileage may vary):
1. Focusing on What (and Who) Matters Most. When people perceive future time horizons as shorter and more limited, they prioritize emotionally meaningful goals and activities by savoring the present and choosing to deepen close relationships (Stanford Center on Longevity’s Laura Carstensen’s “socioemotional selectivity theory”).
2. Disappointment = Expectations – Reality. Our 40s are often the decade when we realize we won’t be President of the United States, our spouse isn’t our soulmate, or we’re not going to win a Grammy. The great mashup of youthful expectations with actual reality can create what Brené Brown calls the “midlife unraveling.” Our “great expectations reckoning” serves us well from that point forward as we learn to manage our expectations of life.
3. Time Affluence. It’s amazing how many competing influences and roles we have in our 40s: being part of the “sandwich generation” (taking care of our parents and kids at the same time); navigating the peak of our career and salary potential (and commuting from our suburban home); doing our best to stay in shape and stay in touch with friends; handling obligatory commitments (from PTA to leading the Boy Scout troop), working out more because we’re not loving the effect gravity is having on us. Add these all up, and we’re time-starved, which is why we can appreciate the newfound space in our calendars as we move out of this congested era of our lives.
4. Emotional Moderation. While life circumstances don’t necessarily become any easier, our response to them improves with age. Between stimulus and response, we savor our space and are less reactive. Our EQ and empathy can grow with age, and, on work teams, we’re perceived as offering more “psychological safety.” In social science studies, it’s proven that we tend to be more drawn to positivity than when we were younger. We don’t dwell on the negative or on things we can’t change or influence.
5. The Relief of “My Body Doesn’t Define Me.” As we like to say around MEA, “just when I got comfortable in my own skin, it started to sag.” Yes, we still have “organ recitals” with our friends about what’s not working like it used to, but what a relief it is to not purely be defined by or identified with our wrinkly earthly portal. This is the time in life when we realize there’s so much more to who we are than our skin.
6. The Glory of Growing Whole. Yes, we grow old, but we also grow whole. Learning to integrate all of who we are means we don’t feel so compartmentalized. Even our brains move into a more holistic place where we’re better able to “connect the dots” and trust our intuition. We understand our strengths and weaknesses and are familiar with our shadow. Our authentic character shines through. We also realize “leadership is much less about what we do and much more about who we are.”
7. Becoming an Alchemist. We become more of a mixologist as we age. We’re able to hold two opposing ideas in the mind simultaneously while still being able to function. It feels like we’re playing on a larger playing field when we can be both curious and wise, extrovert and introvert. And our growing intuition guides us to know what’s the right mix at any particular time.
8. The Discovery of a Soul and the Serving of a World. Carl Jung and Richard Rohr have both chronicled the fact that midlife is when most of us shift from the ego as our operating system to our soul. This internal journey also gives us a newfound appreciation for nature, spirituality, and all things bigger than ourselves. We now have time to explore the mysteries of life and experience more awe and curiosity. We also have time to connect, often in the role of a steward, with causes bigger than ourselves.
9. No More “Damns” to Give. “Chip, why did you have to go mess up this perfectly fine post with a swear word?!” Because there comes a point in our lives when we can offer unvarnished insight in its rawest form, hopefully without anyone taking offense. As we age, we don’t care what other people think quite as much. We realize “giving a damn” about this person or that situation is tiring our soul and distracting us from our goals. We’ve given a lot of “damns” in our life, and they take energy. Or, as my friend so delicately says in his book title, we learn “Don’t sweat the small stuff” (and it’s all small stuff). We can be more discerning and reclaim some of that energy for the journey ahead.
10. Marveling at our Wisdom. As we age (assuming we’re awake), we start recognizing patterns in our lives, often based upon mistakes we’ve made. Pattern recognition helps us to have hunches faster. The longer we’ve been on the planet, the more patterns we’ve seen. What a joy it is to see our wisdom magically emerge – especially with mentees – just when it’s needed. What’s obvious to us might not be obvious to them. That’s why cultivating and harvesting wisdom—at any age—is one of the most important endeavors we can commit to in our lifetimes.