Here’s a little good news for anyone who’s getting older (yeah, Peter Pan, that includes you): a recent Gallup poll has found that as people get older, they get happier.
You read that right. And I know, such a finding runs counter to the results of countless other studies and anecdotal asides. Not to mention the stereotypes of lonely spinsters, desperate housewives, cosmetically-enhanced cougars, and grumpy old men who have nothing better to do than lament the passing of the “good old days” and talk about the state of their prostate.
Researchers are equally baffled, according to a piece in the New York Times:
‘It could be that there are environmental changes,’ said Arthur A. Stone, the lead author of a new study based on the survey, ‘or it could be psychological changes about the way we view the world, or it could even be biological–for example brain chemistry or endocrine changes.’
The survey involved more than 340,000 people nationwide, ages 18-85, and basically found that people are pretty happy around age 18, but then get less and less so, until about the age of 50, at which point,
there is a sharp reversal.
And then, as everything else begins to sag, happiness starts to climb. Really. Equally surprising is the finding that happiness levels had very little correlation to any of the life biggies you’d think might affect our emotional state: the results held regardless of sex, relationship status, employment status, and whether or not the respondent had children.
‘Those are four reasonable candidates,’ Dr. Stone said, ‘but they don’t make much difference.’
So what is going on, then? Well, our pal Barry Schwartz, he of The Paradox of Choice, has a theory. Talking to him recently for the book, Schwartz posited that what’s happening here has a lot to do with expectations, choices, and the freedom that comes when we’re able to let go of the notion that, because there are so many options out there, there must be one that’s Perfect-with-a-Capital-P… and that it’s our job to find it. Here’s some of what Schwartz had to say:
I think the fact is that you need to learn from experience that good enough is almost always good enough. It seems like settling, as you put it. Why would anyone settle?… And this is something that’s been coming up in the last few weeks, starting at age 50, people get happier. And I think a significant reason why is what you learn from experience is exactly that good enough is good enough, and once you learn that, you stop torturing yourself looking for the best and life gets a lot simpler. And I think it’s very difficult to convince a twenty year-old that that’s the way to go through life.
Difficult if not flat-out impossible. But I guess there’s a silver lining to this self-induced suffering, this lesson that only experience can teach us: We may never find perfection, but we will surely get older.
Not the best news, I realize, but certainly, it’s good enough.