J. in Ohio provides a welcome example of the most surprising, and also the most robust, of the findings I report in The Happiness Curve: in late adulthood, the aging process helps us feel contentment. She writes:
Thank you for the very thought-provoking insights of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. It certainly helps me understand the unexplained gloom that engulfed me in my forties. But as I approach my 84th birthday, it is equally irrational that I should be experiencing one of the happiest periods of my life. Even my doctor seems amazed that I’m not depressed. I’ve been a widow for fifteen years, have had more than my share of medical issues, have long been retired from a satisfying career as a university professor, have given up volunteer jobs and international travels that enriched retirement. But living in an independent living apartment in a retirement community I’m not alone in finding that time flies by as I participate in a variety of activities from going out to dinner to concerts and theater. I have a wide variety of friends to share a meal with or invite for ‘Happy Hour’ on my balcony over a wooded ravine. Until he died a year ago, I even had a totally unexpected romantic relationship with a kindred spirit here. My own ‘happiness curve’ is higher than it was at sixty or seventy. It has me wondering what’s next.
J. goes on to say that the kind of positivity she is experiencing deserves more attention:
From my perspective your book demands a sequel about ‘happiness’ in old age. … My feelings are not universal but they are far more common than books by “experts” and interactions with others from physicians to family members leads one to expect. Part of it appears to be one’s experiences in adapting to change, how many times and how successfully you’ve had to cope with both pleasant and difficult changes. Part of it would seem to be participating in opportunities that make you feel needed and appreciated. I serve as webmaster for our resident website and share a ‘Great Courses’ lecture series that I purchased with an enthusiastic group of 15 to 20 residents. Both of these give me a feeling of contributing to my community that has always been important to me.
J. is clearly surprised to find herself experiencing so much contentment, despite having many reasons to expect herself to feel unhappy. Meanwhile, she is finding particular satisfaction in some group activities which, to her younger self, might have seemed pleasant but unimportant.
Together, her responses are good illustrations of how changes in our brains and our expectations join forces to help us toward contentment in late adulthood. Our brains become more focused on the positive, finding additional meaning and reward in simple—yet profound—acts of interpersonal connection. Because the stereotype of old age is one of loss, decline, and sadness, we get the further boost of a pleasant surprise.
As always, your mileage may vary. Nothing is guaranteed. But J.’s experience is common—and way under-recognized. She is right to say that the reality of happy aging deserves far more study and attention than it receives!