“Getting older rules,” said no one ever. It’s true. Not many of us leap at the chance to age. There’s the well-documented cognitive and physical decline, not to mention the wrinkles and sensible shoes. But research suggests that there’s also a huge upside to aging: the older we are, the happier we feel. More specifically, our mental health – including our overall well-being and how we deal with stress – keeps getting better right up until our last breath.
First, let’s look at a few studies:
In this study of 1,500 San Diego residents aged 21 to 99, people in their 20s were found to be the most stressed out and depressed, while those in their 90s were the most content. “The consistency was really striking,” said Dilip Jeste, director of the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging and senior author of the study. “People who were in older life were happier, more satisfied, less depressed, had less anxiety and less perceived stress than younger respondents.”
These brain imaging studies show that older people are less responsive to stressful images than younger people. When both older and younger adults were shown photos of smiling babies – both groups’ brain areas associated with emotion lift up equally. But when they were shown car accident images, older people had a much more subdued response than younger people.
Why the happy shift? While there’s still a lot of speculation, here are some theories.
Less Life Changes
What Study 2 also found that people in their 20s and 30s are generally much more plagued by anxiety and depression than older adults. Huge life changes like establishing a career, finding a lift partner and navigating financial issues can overwhelm us. “It could be that age is associated with a reduction in risk factors for mental health,” said Darrell Worthy, a professor of cognitive psychology at Texas A&M University, who was not involved in the work. “Older adults may not have to deal with these stressors as much.”
A Zen-er Mindset
In his book The Happiness Curve, Jonathan Rauch explains that life satisfaction follows a U-shaped path. In childhood, life is a ball – everything is shiny and new. Once we get to middle age, however, where our potential and productivity is at an all-time high, our life satisfaction bottoms out because the pressure to achieve can be daunting. But as we start to face our mortality and recognize that our time on Earth is finite, we tend to live more in the moment. This can be extremely liberating.
“When people face endings, they tend to shift from goals about exploration and expanding horizons to ones about savoring relationships and focusing on meaningful activities,” said Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “When you focus on emotionally meaningful goals, life gets better, you feel better, and the negative emotions become less frequent and more fleeting when they occur.”
Been There, Done That
There’s also the fact that once we reach a certain age, we’ve seen our share of life crises – and learned that we can weather the storm no matter what life throws at us. Because we no longer catastrophize everything and know that the clouds will eventually part and leave us standing – we’re less overwhelmed and dare we say more peaceful. In other words, it’s true what they say about the benefits of getting wiser.
Consider it something to look forward to.Tags: happiness, health and wellness, healthy living