The U-curve of happiness: Why old age is a time of psychological bliss

Here's why many 80 year olds are probably happier than you.

ASHTON APPLEWHITE: There are lots of legitimate reasons to worry about getting older, like getting sick and running out of money, ending up alone. Those fears are legitimate and real. But the thing is, we need to think about how the culture in which we age shapes those experiences. I'm not a Pollyanna about aging. I'm sort of in the 'both sides of the story' business. We hear only the downside. And we hear very little about all the positive aspects of aging, which are that we grow more confident, we grow happier.

When I started thinking about all this, my view of old age was unrelievedly grim. And one of the things I stumbled upon really early was the U-curve of happiness. And when I first encountered it, seriously I thought they must have cornered two 80 year olds, and given them a cookie, and said 'How are you doing?' The U-curve shows that people are happiest at the beginnings and the ends of our lives, that midlife, the famous midlife crisis, is indeed the trough of our satisfaction. And this is true for a couple of reasons. Midlife is the time of life when typically we have maximum family responsibilities. We're supposed to be crushing it in our careers. We may have responsibility for people both older and younger than us. And it's also the time of life where we realize, gee, I may not become a ballerina, I may not hike Mt. Everest. And those are sobering reflections, that maybe now, you're at a turning point, and there's more road behind you than ahead.

But something happens as we get older, especially up into our 80s. And it is the exact opposite of an ageist thought that I started out with. I thought, well, obviously, everything about getting older is going to suck. And one of the things that clearly sucks about it is the proximity to death. I envisioned, I literally envisioned the shadow of the grim reaper stretching over this sad iron bedstead. The awareness that time is short does not fill people with dread. It doesn't work that way neurologically. That was another assumption of mine. The knowledge that time is short helps people live in the moment, because they are more conscious about what they want to do with their time and who they want to spend it with. Kids live in the moment because they aren't neurologically equipped to do anything else. And olders do it because precisely they are aware that time is short and they want to make the most of the remaining time. It's why the older people are, the less they worry about dying. They don't want to die. And they especially don't want to die in pain. But they don't worry about it. And they think younger people worry too much about both the dying and the getting there.

  • The U-curve of happiness shows that we humans are most content at the beginnings and ends of our lives.
  • The famous midlife crisis is the trough of our happiness because it's a time when we have responsibility for people older and younger than us, and we grow aware that we may not fulfill the dreams of our youth.
  • Children and people in their 80s are uniquely able to live in the moment and be happy because they live at a neurological and psychological sweet spot, respectively.



Credit: Willrow Hood / 362693204 via Adobe Stock
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