Like many who came of age in the 1960s, I remember that old song by Pete Townshend and The Who, and I have to laugh. “Things they do look awful cold, hope I die before I get old,” he sang. Back then, I bought it. I thought aging would be a dismal pursuit. But now that I’m in my 70s, I know just the opposite is true. We generally get happier as we grow older.
I’ve seen it in my own friends, patients, and research participants. Take my friend Marcus, for instance. Reminded that he’s 82, the retired university administrator seems bemused. “When I was young, I thought everybody this age would be decrepit,” he says. “But that just hasn’t happened to me—yet.”
Sure, he’s had challenges: a heart problem, two aneurysms, a cancer scare. But with healthy habits, good genes, and some measure of luck, he’s shown resilience, recovering from setbacks in short order.
And yes, he notices changes that come with age. His golf game is one example. “I’m not going to hit the ball 280 yards anymore, so I hit it 200,” he says. “I change the clubs I use. I focus on what’s possible. Adaptability—that’s the difference.”
With this attitude, Marcus contradicts the myth that aging equals misery. In fact, surveys of happiness consistently show a “U-shaped” pattern. Average happiness starts high at ages 18 to 21, declines in the next decades, and then begins to increase at about age 50. From then on, it keeps increasing into late life.
True, some older people who experience chronic illness, death of loved ones, and other losses have increased depression. But aging also brings a broadened perspective—an attitude that naturally allows greater acceptance. It’s not that conditions get better as we age. It’s that we’re more realistic about life’s ups and downs.
Hannes Schwandt proved this idea a few years ago. The economist surveyed 23,000 people about their current life satisfaction and expectations for five years into the future. Over several years, he learned about people’s aspirations and then observed how things turned out. He discovered that young adults had high hopes that were often unmet, leading to lower life satisfaction. But older people had just the opposite experience. By age 50, they had been disappointed so often that they lowered their expectations to align with their experience. While this may sound sad, the study reveals a wonderful silver lining: Life actually improved for many of the older folks over time. And when it did, they were more likely to be surprised and delighted with the result.
“This combination of accepting life and feeling less regret about the past is what makes life satisfaction increase again,” Schwandt wrote in the Harvard Business Review.
As older people let go of external expectations, we let go of striving. We choose activities based on what we want to do—not what we have to do. It’s not that older people don’t have goals. We do. But often our aspirations are more focused and more achievable, resulting in a greater sense of happiness. Comfortable in our own skin, we can relax, finally zeroing in on activities aligned with our truest values.
Dr. Eric B. Larson is vice president for research and health care innovation at Kaiser Permanente Washington and author of Enlightened Aging: Building Resilience for a Long, Active Life(Rowman & Littlefield).