When songwriter Jeff Dayton wrote these lyrics celebrating his aging father –“I might have been younger, faster, stronger….but I’ve never been better”– he probably didn’t know he was tapping into a universal truth. Because in fact, studies show that the older you get, the happier you get and the more mentally balanced you become.
Sure, it goes against the stereotypical image of the cranky old person who can’t wait for it all to be over, hurting and miserable. But in fact, a recent review of seven studies presented at the American Psychological Association convention revealed that mental health improves with age except for those with dementia-related illnesses. According to research director Susan Turk Charles of the University of California, Irvine, the studies revealed that not only does happiness improves with age, but so does the ability to maintain emotional control.
In one of the studies, several hundred subjects were made to overhear others calling them “boring” and “untrustworthy.” While the younger subjects, who were between the ages of 18 and 40, reacted with anger and distress, the older subjects, aged 63 to 86, were more likely to shrug it off. Generally, the older the subject, the less affected he or she was by the criticism. One might argue that the seemingly detached subjects simply hadn’t turned their hearing aids on and so missed the slight, but Dr. Charles says in fact, the studies show that advancing age leads to improved anger control and perspective, and better skills at deflecting conflict.
“Research has also shown that older adults … are more likely to actively avoid or limit negative, stressful situations than do younger adults,” Dr. Charles noted. “We know that older people are increasingly aware that the time they have left in life is growing shorter… They have also had more time to learn and understand the intentions of others, which help them to avoid these stressful situations.”
The researchers did find that when faced with chronic stressors, such as the long-term illness of a loved one, age worked against subjects because they simply didn’t have the physical resources to cope. “Older adults may have more difficulty with these situations because distressing events require both psychological and physical resources,” Dr. Charles said.
Still, overall, age seems to lead to serenity and even happiness. But why? One explanation that pops up repeatedly has to do with social interaction. One of the studies found that those in their 70s and 80s were twice as likely to be involved in community activities as younger subjects. Plus, while young people may spend their time building 1000-friend networks on Facebook, the elderly focus on family and strong friendships already established, which apparently leads to less stress and more satisfaction. Also, elderly subjects often have dumped their jobs and retired, which removes a layer of stress and grants more play time.
Another finding emerging from the studies puts forth the idea that the older brain lets go of negative memories more quickly and more completely than the younger brain. While younger people mull over negative experiences, plotting revenge or wallowing in guilt, elderly people simply let the memory go. Similarly, in one of the seven studies, Professor Lauren Carstensen of Stanford University found that elderly subjects live more in the moment than younger counterparts. “Older people do not dwell in the past as popular stereotypes claim, but they do not think as much about the future as younger people do,” said Dr. Carstensen. “We argue that much of the benefit to mental health comes from living in the present — stopping to smell the roses and noticing what is good about life.”
One key fact overlooked by the study and virtually all the press coverage is that the results look rather different when viewed through the skew of gender. According to a study published in The Journal of Happiness last year, up until age 48, women out-happy men by a considerable margin, but that flips around once women pass through the gates of menopause. The researchers theorize that men have more success meeting their goals late in life — they’ve finally reached financial goals, for instance — and their happy enough in their marriages. Women, on the other hand, often haven’t met their life goals, and their marriages ultimately turn disappointing when the kids leave home, or, they find themselves widowed.
In any event, given the possibility of finding the golden road emotionally in the golden years if you don’t have dementia, it makes sense to keep the body and mind healthy so that you can partake of your well earned reward. Unfortunately, of the more than 22 million adults over age 71 in the US, more than one third show signs of mental decline. But there are things you can do to decrease your chances of being one of the declining unhappy third and to increase your chances of being able to sing, ‘I might have been younger, faster, stronger….but I’ve never been better.”