September 25, 2017 by Jean
Some readers may have begun to wonder if I have abandoned this blog. The answer is no, but it did become a low priority in recent weeks as I prepared to return to my former place of employment, Gettysburg College, to give two presentations (a class session and a public evening lecture) about aging and health.
I had some moments of anxiety about these presentations as I prepared them, but both went well. I was especially happy with my evening lecture, “Health and Well-Being in Later Life,” which focused on two paradoxes of aging, health, and happiness.
The first paradox has to do with the relationship between physical health and psychological well-being. Generally, those who are healthier are also higher in well-being, and this remains true in our later years. But, although health inevitably declines somewhat in later life, well-being is at its highest during those same years. Research on well-being – over time, across countries, and using different measures of well-being – consistently shows a U-shaped pattern where well-being is fairly high in the thirties, dips in the forties, reaches its low point somewhere in the fifties, and then climbs again through the sixties and seventies. The graph above shows data on reported happiness from the General Social Survey for the years from 2006-2016. (The survey is done every two years and asks a wide variety of questions to a representative sample of adult Americans.) This doesn’t look much like a U-shaped curve (in part because grouping the ages into decades flattens out the curve), but a closer look shows the familiar pattern. While it is fairly high in the thirties, happiness dips in the forties and fifties. Then it begins to rise again through the sixties and seventies. Some studies of well-being show it continuing to rise into the eighties and nineties, some show it leveling off at these ages. The GSS data show a decline from the peak happiness of the seventies, but note that those in their nineties are just as likely to be very happy as those in their thirties.
So what are all those old people so happy about? I looked for clues in a recent discussion on the Elder Orphans Facebook group in response to a member’s question, “What one word do you most associate with aging?” This query got a lot of response. A significant number of those responses focused on the physical deterioration of later life, with words like pain, aches, stiffness, arthritis, wrinkles; but most responses focused on positive aspects of aging. I identified four main themes in those responses:
- Wisdom – This was the most frequent positive association with aging. It seems to refer to the combination of life experience, knowledge, and self-understanding that gives people courage and confidence in their later years.
- Freedom – This theme seemed to refer primarily to the freedom of retirement and the opportunities it provides for fun, adventure, and travel.
- Alive – This theme combined the idea of being fortunate to still be alive in life’s later decades and the personal growth that often characterizes this stage of life. People also used words like creative, blossoming, opening, renewal, fulfillment and richness to describe this sense of being fully alive.
- Acceptance – This theme seems to contrast with the sense of excitement and adventure in the previous two themes, emphasizing words like calm, unflappable, peace, reflection, blessing, and transcendence. I think the acceptance at the heart of this calm, peaceful face of aging is the acceptance of death as a normal stage of life. It seems odd to think of acceptance of death as a root of happiness, but I believe it is. Those who truly know that they will not live forever are more likely to focus on what is important, not sweat the small stuff, and try to live every precious moment of life to the fullest.
This leads us to the second paradox of aging: Although later life is the happiest time of life for most people, our society continues to valorize youth as the best time of life and to promote negative perceptions of aging. When I asked the members of the audience at my talk how many had heard about the U curve of happiness, only two people (out of more than 100) raised their hands. As a society, we treat aging as either a great tragedy or as something that shouldn’t be mentioned. Think of all the 30th, 40th and 50th birthday cards and parties with jokey “mourning” themes. The greatest compliment we can give an old person is to describe them as young. How many times have you heard someone described as “ninety years young” or “one hundred years young”?
The ageism of our society was another theme in the Elder Orphans discussion, and it should be a topic of discussion. Study after study has found that those with more positive attitudes about aging are healthier and happier. And it’s not just that those who are healthier have a more positive outlook; those with positive attitudes about aging when they were fifty had better health outcomes as much as thirty years later than those with more negative attitudes at age fifty!
Quite a bit of research about the consequences of attitudes toward aging has been done by Becca Levy at the Yale School of Public Health. In one study, she found that those who actively resisted ageism had better health outcomes than those who did not resist. In another study, she designed an experiment to see if it was possible to change elders’ perceptions of aging. Some of the participants in the experiment were given positive subliminal messages about aging (via words flashed on a screen too quickly for the human eye to see) once a week for four weeks. Other participants were given explicit positive messages about aging. The control group got neither of these interventions. It turned out that the subliminal messaging was most effective; not only did those exposed to these messages develop more positive attitudes about aging, but they also had a greater improvement in their physical functioning than a six-month exercise program had produced!
Audience responses to my talk demonstrated that our society’s negative messages about aging are dysfunctional. Young people (most of the audience) were relieved to hear that the rest of their life would not be a downhill slide from the high point of youth. Those in what one faculty member described as “the middle-aged dip” were delighted to learn that the best was yet to come. And elders in the audience told me that they left feeling proud and optimistic about their futures.