The bad news is we’re getting older. Even if we can’t see it yet, the change is happening gradually: Our backs are hunching, our vision is fading, and our hair is either falling out or turning gray.
The good news is despite these hurdles, we’re a heck of a lot happier at the end of our lives than we were in the middle of them.
A recent study by MetLife says happiness augments with age. Americans between 45 and 74 report being much happier than their younger counterparts in the 25-to-44 age bracket. The research indicates people tend to be less stressed and more satisfied as they age. One reason: perspective.
“We are happiest when we are kids … and when we are older adults,” says Shane Lopez, senior scientist in residence at Gallup and a former associate professor at Kansas University’s psychology department. “When we are kids, life seems like it will last forever. When we are old, we know that it won’t, and we start to behave more in line with our best interests.”
Older people are more apt to spend time on activities that give them a sense of purpose — volunteering, helping others and spending time with family — according to the study.
Take Evan Jorn. Jorn, 58, spends a chunk of his time each week volunteering through hospice. He helps patients in and out of chairs, feeds them, walks them to the bathroom — whatever’s needed. Every Thursday he carts his acoustic set to the Care Cottage, 200 Maine, to play guitar. On performance days, he strums songs that resonate with the crowds he sings for, an aging group, many with terminal cancer or Alzheimer’s disease.
When he plays, he gets to watch toes tap and smiles fold onto faces that were previously inert, vacant.
“There’s really no end to the rewards of being a volunteer,” Jorn says. “Because I choose volunteer activities that fit with my interests and abilities, it's more likely that I'll be happier for having done the work, and I usually am.”
A volunteer gig is a lot like a job: You want one you’re both good at and enjoy. Finding a community activity that jibes with interests can make volunteering more pleasant for both the individual and the community at large.
“Volunteering makes for a positive experience, and the more of those you have, the happier you are,” says Lopez. “High volunteering rates, at the community level, are associated with community well-being.”
Jorn started volunteering in his early 50s.
“I have grown happier as I have aged,” Jorn says. “I have had the opportunity to grow from a poor farm kid — rich in love, poor in money — to a college-educated engineer and manager.”
The reasons happiness hikes with age are many. For one, older people tend to be more financially stable: they’ve bought their house, purchased their car and are often retired. Also, their kids are gone. Less is typically expected of them, says Charlie Kuszmaul, clinical social worker at Bert Nash.
“The things you have to be concerned about (when you’re younger) typically aren’t the same,” Kuszmaul says. “People from 25 to 45, most of the time, are raising children. And there is a lot of complexity to your life when you’re raising children, whereas most people when they’re older may have grandchildren, but what are you supposed to do with grandchildren? Spoil them and send them back to their parents.”
Kuszmaul suggests that it isn’t that older people live better lives, necessarily. They are just better at dealing with problems.
“Ideally humans overtime develop more effective coping mechanisms,” says Kuszmaul. “You’ve tried all these things that don’t work, so if anything else, through trial and error you run across more things that work.”
Kuszmaul gives a colorful metaphor showing how humans are repetitive at first, trying things again and again, even when they fail to work.
“Have you ever been in your house and you’re looking for something?” he asks. “You look in the drawer. It’s not there. You shut the drawer. You look around. You come back. You look in the drawer again. It’s not the drawer. Third time: it’s still not in the drawer. Why the hell do I keep looking for this same thing in this same place? It’s not there.”
Fortunately with age and experience, stooped shoulders and smile lines, we eventually stop looking in the drawer.