Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Amani Hasan

Legendary singer Patti LaBelle nailed it when she said: “Here’s what I know: I’m a better person at 50 than I was at 48 … and better at 52 than I was at 50. I’m calmer, easier to live with. All this stuff is in my soul forever.”

Sandra Anderson, a newly minted empty nester in Ottawa, feels the same: “I had a long overdue catch-up over Easter weekend with my niece, who’d been travelling overseas for a year. The first thing she said to me one morning in the kitchen: ‘Auntie, you seem so calm and relaxed compared to two years ago. Are you in love? Is that why you seem so happy?’ I quickly quashed any romantic notions my niece was harbouring, but she did hit on something. I was increasingly conscious of feeling happier as I approached my 65th birthday. I simply felt more content, less fussed about things – more comfortable in my own skin.”

Does age mean greater happiness?

The answer is yes, according to 1,530 Canadians who participated in an Angus Reid survey conducted in 2016, which concluded that the happiest Canadians were age 55 and older. Of those, 41 percent said they were “very happy” and 57 per cent described themselves as being “pretty happy.” Senior vice-president of the Angus Reid Institute Shachi Kurl said his team concluded that the older demographic was typically happier because they “don’t have a lot to prove.”

One of the gifts of aging is understanding that time is precious and shouldn’t be spend on trivial matters. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Patrick Doheny.

That’s one of the observations made by psychologists who specialize in the study of aging. Among them is Dr. Lixia Yang, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto. For the last decade, Yang has specialized in the psychology of aging and has been involved in numerous tests involving mature Canadians: “Whenever our standardized tests incorporate some kind of mood measurement, older adults – without fail – uniformly score higher on positive aspects such as contentment and happiness, especially in contrast to younger respondents.”

Remembering the good times

Yang refers to “the paradox of aging” – namely that as our bodies may experience more physical challenges, our stress, worry and anger decline. “In essence, we become happier as we get older,” she notes.

Yang describes how many mature people develop what’s called an “emotional regulation strategy,” in which they’re less likely to focus on negative things and their memory for positive things becomes better than their recollection of bad memories: “It’s not that they have a poor memory, they simply reallocate their resources – such as memory – as they get older. Facing a different time horizon – the years left to them – means that mature people tend to focus on the good things in their life. There’s often a realization that, ‘Something bad has happened. I can’t undo it. So I’m going to get on with my life.’”

With an understanding that time has limitations, mature adults tend to gravitate toward feel-good activities such as spending time with family and friends. In contrast, younger people, who perceive time as infinite, tend to focus on activities that help them in their careers or life-skills acquisition.

Maturity brings greater contentment in life

Several years ago, the Department of Psychology at the University of Manitoba, in conjunction with its Centre on Aging, chose as the keynote lecture for their annual colloquium, Emotion and Aging: Exploding the Misery Myth. The guest lecturer was Dr. Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor and the director of the Stanford University’s Center on Longevity and author of A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity.

Carstensen’s message echoed those of professor Yang: “Older people are happier than middle-aged, and middle-aged are definitely happier than younger people.”

“Mature adults tend to gravitate toward feel-good activities such as spending time with family and friends.” Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Moodboard.

“In our research at Stanford, we’ve found that changes in mature adults are grounded fundamentally in the uniquely human ability to monitor time – not clock or calendar time but life time,” said Carstensen. “Recognizing that we won’t live forever changes our perspective. And that in turn changes how we live, how we spend our limited resources.”

The increased levels of happiness are sometimes a byproduct of the people we choose to spend time with on a daily basis. “As we get older, we inherently seek out more authentic connections, people who make us feel good – unlike younger people who perhaps frequently spend time with people they don’t even like.”

Carstensen explains that older people are better at solving charged conflicts and debates, and they tend to respond to and view injustice with compassion – but not despair. When we see that we don’t have all the time in the world we take less notice of trivial matters.

Similarly, Yang has found that mature adults, because they’ve already demonstrated they can cope with loss and tragedy, have more resilience when such life-altering events occur later on in life.

University of Victoria researcher Leila Mazhari, for her report, The Pursuit of Happiness: The Effect of Social Involvement on Life Satisfaction in Canada, analyzed the connection between eight standard social factors (marital status, religion, gender, age, level of education, employment status, income level and health) and happiness levels. Her conclusion was consistent with what other studies and many individuals have also found: “In general, older people are more satisfied with life than younger people.”

And that’s definitely something to be happy about.

 

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Doug O'Neill
O’Neill, formerly Executive Editor of Canadian Living, writes on all manner of topics for a variety of Canadian publications – but has a preference for storytelling that gets to the heart of things. “Writing about journeys has always fascinated me,'” says contributor Doug O’Neill, “whether I’m scribbling about my own travels around the world or about other people’s inspiring journeys as they navigate from one life stage to another.”