You might think that you’re pretty content now, but just wait until you hit late middle age. A recent story by Libby Copeland over at Slate — “Obama at 50: Older, Wiser…Happier?” — explores how studies of happiness are finding that once we get past middle age, the rest feels like relatively smooth sailing. In other words, we get happier as we get older. For example, a 2010 study of over 300,000 Americans found that levels of anger, stress and worry all plummet at 50 and within a few years happiness rises — for men and women, the married and unmarried, and the working and unemployed.
Writes Copeland: “Taken together, these reports suggest that the key to happiness may not be changing one’s circumstances but changing one’s expectations. As we age, it appears, we aspire to moderation rather than thrills, we notice the silver lining, we temper our highs and lows, and we seek fulfillment in the moment. With age comes pragmatism – instead of remaking the world, we remake our impressions of it.”
As Copeland points out, aging seems like it should be stressful and less happy-making: your body starts to deteriorate in more immediately noticeable ways, you watch friends and family die. The causality for these results remains somewhat mysterious, but a number of explanations have been offered. Maybe it’s the joy of retiring or the freedom of the finally empty nest. Or maybe — with a sense that time is more valuable and less abundant — we prioritize differently, making more meaningful choices when it comes to how we spend our time. Or perhaps it’s that our very idea of what happiness means changes over time, and that as we get older we associate it more with peacefulness than excitement and are generally better at accepting the common fusion of happiness and sadness that life frequently sends our way.
I would also weigh in and add that one of the reasons people might become happier in later life is the sense of perspective you hopefully gain. Even in my early thirties, there are any number of things that no longer make me anxious or upset but that would have sent me into a tailspin a decade ago. For example, I have long since dispensed with picking apart the body parts I perceive as less than ideal — who can be bothered and why does it matter? Perhaps you also get better at guessing what will make you happy (i.e., friends, family, health, a sense of purpose and accomplishment) instead of just believing the often erroneous social messages about how happiness is created (i.e., the acquisition of shoes). But regardless of the reason, an increase in happiness is something to look forward to.