When we think about “going downhill” as we age, it’s usually in a negative light. Naturally, we tend to associate old age with a decline in physical health and cognitive ability. However, researchers recently discovered a positive spin to aging: The older we get, the happier we are.
While previous studies have suggested that mental health dips or tapers off at certain points in our life, researchers at the University of California, San Diego discovered that this isn’t the case. Their new study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, found that our mental health continues to improve as we age — right up until the very end.
Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, Laura Carstensen, who was not involved in the study, calls this phenomenon the “paradox of aging.” She suggests that our happiness increases because of a shifting perception.
“When people face endings, they tend to shift from goals about exploration and expanding horizons to ones about savoring relationships and focusing on meaningful activities,” she tells the Los Angeles Times. “When you focus on emotionally meaningful goals, life gets better, you feel better and the negative emotions become less frequent and more fleeting when they occur.”
So goal-setting is much different from the young to the old. And that’s OK, Carstensen argues. While young people are more focused on paying dues, those efforts can actually pay off later on in life.
“A young person may take an inorganic chemistry course and not enjoy a minute of it, but it’ll open doors for them later on,” she tells LIVESTRONG.COM. While an older person will focus on what is meaningful in that moment.
5 Ways to Embrace Your Inner Oldie
Not all hope is lost for young people trying to cheer up. Below are five ways anyone can begin to embrace old age and happiness.
1. Take Time to Be Present
Rapper Drake’s motto, YOLO (“you only live once”), might actually be more appropriate for the elderly than the millennial generation. Young people always have one foot in the future, whether it’s worrying about your next exam, planning your outfit for tonight’s party or preparing for tomorrow’s meeting. Old people are all about the here and now.
“We’re the only species that takes account of our mortality throughout our lives,” Carstensen says. “We know tacitly how many years we have left, and when we know we have 80, it can be overwhelming.”
Practicing mindfulness can help you focus on the present. According to the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley, “Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment.”
Three things you can do to start your day in a mindful way, according to mindful.org, are to choose an alarm that soothes you as you wake, hydrate with water before you have your first cup of coffee and take a moment to go outside and observe nature.
2. Make the Choice to Be Positive
Carstensen describes a study wherein she and her colleagues showed old and young people different positively and negatively charged images: puppies, gory car crashes and sunsets among them.
“We found that old people look to the beautiful sunset,” she says. “They look away from the negative and toward the positive.” Young people, on the other hand, had stronger reactions to the negative images, meaning they unconsciously focus on the negative.
While we can’t just change our worldview with the snap of our fingers, Carstensen advises us to take a cue from Buddhist monks and practice meditation.
Matthieu Ricard, a French biochemist turned Buddhist monk, describes a method of “mind training” that involves focusing on your internal processes rather than external stimuli. When you see something that annoys you, he advises, don’t think about that object. Instead, focus on the emotions you’re feeling.
For example, if you’re in a traffic jam, don’t focus on the glowing taillights; instead focus on the frustration you’re feeling in that moment. Essentially, when the world gets ugly, take a look at yourself first.
3. Rethink Your Career Timeline
In a 2015 piece Carstensen wrote for the Wall Street Journal, she imagines a world in which people will “cycle in and out of full-time and part-time work,” “pursue multiple careers” and return to our education throughout our lives.
Instead of tacking your extra years (which are, for the most part, healthy ones) onto a 30-year retirement that a 40-year career won’t support, you might want to consider extending your young adulthood.
“We could enter the workforce more gradually and exit more gradually,” Carstensen tells Chip Castille, BlackRock Head of Global Retirement Strategy. “We could reach the peak of our careers in our 60s and 70s instead of our 40s and 50s.”
Carstensen also suggests that we plan to work later into our lives, as work benefits our cognitive functioning and physical health. For example, several studies concluded that older people who participate in activities that engage their mind and require them to socialize are less likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Never Stop Growing
If you feel bored (or overwhelmed) by the cliche of going to college, getting a job, getting married, having kids and retiring — in that order and at predetermined ages — you’re definitely not alone.
According to experts, the number of people taking lengthy sabbaticals mid-career is increasing. And the people taking sabbaticals are enjoying them: “Of the 500 people interviewed for Reboot Your Life — a 2011 book which offers practical advice on career breaks — not one person regretted the decision to take a break,” the BBC writes.
What’s more, furthering your education throughout your adulthood could continue to have benefits down the road. According to Stanford Business Online, one study concluded that more highly educated people “were more mobile and capable of living independently into those later years over those with fewer years of education.”
Something to think about as you commute to work in the morning.
5. When It Comes to Friends, Less Is More
Studies have shown that, for most people, friendships improve with age. Rather than putting energy into a large quantity of relationships, older adults build stronger bonds with a more exclusive crowd.
“Older adults typically report better marriages, more supportive friendships, less conflict with children and siblings and closer ties with members of their social networks than younger adults,” Karen Fingerman, professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, tells the Wall Street Journal.
Focusing on the relationships that matter also protects against loneliness. Despite what we often think, older adults are less lonely than younger people on average.
Looks like the secret to happiness is out: Go wrinkly or go home.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you know any older people (grandparents, parents, mentors) who seem to have the key to happiness? Have you noticed your overall attitude in life shift as you’ve gotten older? How do your goals incorporate happiness and successful aging? Let us know what you think in the comments section!