How to Be Happy Growing Older

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Written By Pinang Driod

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Next to one’s birthday, the passing of the calendar year induces us to reflect on the march of time in our life. This is not a welcome subject for many—which is perhaps why a lot of people simply redefine old age virtually out of existence. When Americans were asked in 2009 what “being old” means, the most popular response was turning 85. Yet the average life span in the United States in 2022 was only 76. Apparently, then, the average American dies nine years before getting old.

The impulse to define old age as “older than I am now” is not surprising, given all the ways our culture worships youth—its beauty, vitality, and entrepreneurial energy—and offers us any number of options for spending time and money to stop or slow down the clock of aging. And as if the adulation of youth weren’t enough, the stigmatization of seniors is always at hand, through overt discrimination, ageist stereotyping, and crass “OK Boomer”–style contempt.

This can make the inevitable passage of years into a grim prospect for a person. But it shouldn’t have to mean that. True, getting old brings visible signs of physical decline, and may rule out some activities and opportunities. But in other ways, aging can involve growth and improvement—of character, perspective, and overall happiness. In a real sense, we should start looking forward to being old.

Let’s start with how you will feel when you are old. By this, I don’t mean whether your back will hurt more (it almost certainly will), but rather the balance between your positive and negative moods as you age. The answer is probably better than you feel now.

As readers of this column may know, positive and negative affect (mood) seem to operate independently of each other: You can have a lot or a little of either or both. “High affect” people (your happiness columnist included) score above average on both positive and negative mood levels; “low affect” people score less on both. No matter which type you start out as, you can expect your affect levels to change in a desirable direction over the course of your life. According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, both men and women tend to see an increase in positive affect as they get older (women, in particular, see a greater and accelerating increase). On average, negative affect does not change for women predictably with age, but it decreases for aging men (with the caveat that the decrease is more pronounced for married men; for unmarried men, negative affect is higher at every stage of life).

Many theories have been advanced for why affect balance improves as we age. A 2013 review of research reveals that older people develop at least three distinct emotional skills: They react less to negative situations, they are better at ignoring irrelevant negative stimuli than they were when younger, and they remember more positive than negative information. This is almost like a superpower many older people have, that they know negative emotions won’t last so they get a head start on feeling good by consciously disregarding bad feelings as they arise.

As we age, our personality traits change as well. Here again, the news is mostly good. Personality is generally separated by psychologists into five parts: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. (Extroversion is sometimes also separated into the subcategories of social vitality, or gregariousness, and social dominance, or assertiveness.) In 2008, two researchers summarized in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science a voluminous literature on how these dimensions of personality change as we move from childhood to old age. Some of the changes are not necessarily either good or bad. For example, people tend to become less gregarious after their mid-50s; they become more assertive from adolescence through their mid-30s and stay at this higher level; their openness to experience rises into early adulthood, stabilizes, and falls after mid-50s.

Other changes are unambiguously positive. Agreeableness tends to rise throughout adulthood, probably as we see its benefits and establish more emotional equanimity. Neuroticism usually falls, at least until one’s late 60s. And conscientiousness rises continuously. If you follow the typical development, you can expect to be nicer and kinder, and less depressed and anxious, when you are old. For the most part, Boomers really are OK.

Not surprisingly, then, self-esteem tends to rise as people move through adulthood, all the way to age 60. It stays at a high level until about 70, then slightly declines. (This last downward section could be connected to the accumulating death toll of elderly friends and spouses. Even so, age 80 may be better than 30, measured in average affect balance.)

Finally, people also tend to become less envious with age, especially of success in education, social standing, looks, and romance. They do get slightly more envious of money—which makes sense: No one expects to be ravishing at 90, but you can hope to have a bigger condo in Boca Raton.

The good news about aging is that if we simply leave things to the passage of time, life will probably get better for us. But we can do more than just wait around to get old. We can lean into the natural improvements and manage any trends we don’t like.

Those natural strengths as we get old—agreeableness, conscientiousness, mental health, and positive affect—we can think of as emerging talents to develop, just how we might once have thought of our athletic ability when we were growing up. If you’re a gifted basketball player at 12, practicing a lot will pay off when you are 18. Similarly, if you consciously practice being nice, kind, and cheerful when younger, you can truly excel at these traits when you’re old.

I have seen this phenomenon in people close to me who, in late middle age, made a choice to practice character virtues that enhanced life for others. Sure enough, in old age they were absolute superstars of goodness, remembered as such after death.

Start each day by imagining the person you want to be as the years go by: not ruminating on grievances, not wasting time being grumpy, and sharing words of kindness and encouragement with whomever you come across. Notice how this imagined version of yourself makes you feel. The idea is to have this vision become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then, every night, think about ways you can be better still in these areas the next day.

Your weaknesses as you age are more subjective and a matter of personal judgment. For example, is a reduced openness to new experiences good, bad, or neutral? For me, I see this as a weakness, and as something I want to manage. Others may see staying open to new things as less important for themselves, but have another trait they would like to change. For example, say you’re a naturally reticent person who doesn’t want to see introversion become more dominant as you age. Is that something you can change? The answer is probably yes.

Research from 2015 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that when people set out to alter their personality traits—and recorded their daily behavior—they were able to do so. For instance, people who wanted to be more extroverted and kept a diary record of social behavior made progress in modifying their personality over the four months of the study.

As with accentuating the positive, the secret to adjusting personality traits is to change your behavior in explicit and conscious ways. This is being metacognitive, as we say in the trade. In the morning, imagine yourself acting the way you want to act; at night, take stock in a nonjudgmental spirit of how far you succeeded in achieving that aim, and then make fresh resolutions for the next day. The point is to see your personality as a project perpetually in progress—so always be working on it.

You might be pleased to get all this good news about how you can be happy about getting older, but still have one nagging question: If life improves in old age, why do we work so steadfastly to spoil our enjoyment of life in the present with our dread of aging and our panicked efforts to stave it off? A useful answer is that in many cultures, people don’t do these things; in other parts of the world, the perception of aging is positive compared with in the West. According to cross-cultural research, this more positive attitude is especially true in countries such as China, India, Malaysia, Uganda, and Iran. These are societies that traditionally value the wisdom of older people, and appreciate the perspective they bring.

And therein lies the last lesson to help you prepare for your golden years: Start appreciating seniors more for their natural gifts. The practice of seeing yourself valuing old people will reprogram the way you think and feel about your own aging. That will allay your fears, and free you up to get on with the important business of becoming happier.

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