The Paradox of Aging: Growing Older and Happier
Everyone wants to be happy. It’s only natural. After all, it’s in America’s Declaration of Independence. “...life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", but what do old people in particular know about happiness?
Those who have lived through many decades of trial, tribulation and happiness can offer us valuable lessons on how to find, or choose, greater joy in our lives.
New York Times reporter John Leland followed the lives of six New Yorkers over the age of 85 for three years. He discovered after spending time with them that their initial concerns over being limited in their mobility or medical issues eventually gave way to a more positive aspect.
“When the elders described their lives, they focused not on their declining abilities, but on things they could still do and found rewarding,” said Leland in New York Times article titled, “Want to Be Happy? Think Like an Old Person”
Positive Perspective that Comes with Old Age
Leland points to what gerontologists call the paradox of old age: as people's minds and bodies decline, instead of feeling worse about their lives, they feel better. In memory tests, they recall positive images better than negative ones.
Those findings came from the Successful Aging Evaluation or SAGE study done by researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine and Stanford University.
“Even though older age was closely associated with worse physical and cognitive functioning, it was also related to better mental functioning,“ said co-author of the study Colin Depp, an associate professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
So What’s Up with this Happiness in Being Old?
Leland got insight into this mystery by spending lots of time with old folks in their 80s and 90s he had chosen for his writing project.
“For three years, visiting them has been a lesson in living,” said Leland. ”Their muscles weakened, their sight grew dim, their friends and peers gradually disappeared. But each showed a matter-of-fact resilience that would shame most 25-year-olds.”
Leland’s series of articles called “85 and Up” became his book focusing on one year of the time spent with the older folks called, Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old.
Tips On Choosing Happiness from Old Folks
Here are some of the secrets to happiness Leland learned from the “oldest old” in their 80s and 90s, most who were in assisted living or nursing homes. The words of wisdom come directly from the elders.
- Talk About Good Things: "We seldom talk about bad things. We keep ourselves happier. Try your best to keep your mood up. I'm getting old. I want to live a peaceful life here. No arguments, and we can talk with each other without any difficulties," said Ping Wong, who lives in a nursing home near some family members in southern New Jersey and gave her age at different times as 90, 92, 98 and “almost 100.”
- Make Friendship, Love and Liveliness Your Priorities: Helen Moses, 93, spends lots of time with her male companion at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx, New York. "I love Howie," she said of her romantic partner Howie Zeimer. "At night when I get ready for bed, he comes down. And he stays ‘til quarter ‘til nine. He sits in his chair and I lay in the bed. His kisses are getting better," she said. Moses chooses an upbeat perspective. "What keeps me going is when you're lively. You've got to be lively.”
- Be Engaged in Life and Look toward the Future: Jonas Mekas, 95,is a filmmaker, poet and artist who has been called "the godfather of American avant-garde cinema." His work has been exhibited in museums and festivals worldwide. He continues to raising money to expand Anthology Film Archives, the nonprofit organization and theater he helped start in the 1970s. He said he has several books and films to complete and after that, “I’d like to travel.”
These elders who are 85 and older offer valuable wisdom for people of any age. Live with a sense of lightness and let go of the heavy burdens of physical illness and troubles as much possible, while still doing what’s necessary to deal with them. See people, places and situations in a positive light. Live, laugh and look forward to the future by choosing joy and happiness each day.
Leland, John, “Reporter Shares Life Lessons from a Year with the Oldest Old,” Fresh Air with Terry Gross, NPR
Leland, John, “Want to be Happy? Think Like an Old Person,” New York Times, Jan. 2, 2018, reprinted in the Australian Financial Review, Jan. 2, 2018
Leland, John, “Want to be Happy? Think Like an Old Person,” New York Times, Jan. 2, 2018
University of California San Diego, “Paradox of Aging: The Older We Get, the Better We Feel?” Dec. 7, 2012