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April 26, 2008

Age brings happiness, perspective


Finally, there's some good news about aging.

A study published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review reports that the oldest Americans are the happiest. Researchers at the University of Chicago analyzed data gathered during interviews conducted from 1972 to 2004 with a cross-section of Americans ages 18 to 88. About half of those in their late 80s said they were "very happy," compared with a third or less for younger age groups.

In a culture that is obsessed with both youth and happiness, these findings are ironic.

Sociologists theorize that older people are happier because they have learned to lower their expectations and accept what they have and who they are. Thanks to advances in medicine, many have survived cancer, heart attack or stroke, too, and their experience as survivors may make them appreciate life more.

But old age still brings a whole new set of problems and challenges for most people, from routine things like not being able to open a jar or walk up a flight of stairs to more serious challenges, like losing a spouse or struggling to make ends meet.

So how amazing is it that, in the face of all these challenges and difficulties, older people still report being happier than they were in their younger years?

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As a society, we're fixated on youth and happiness. With more and more baby boomers working into the traditional retirement years, there's increased pressure to look younger, and the multi-billion-dollar anti-aging industry is right there with all the solutions. Books like the new best-seller "How Not to Look Old" offer advice on cosmetic surgery, fashion do's and don'ts, and makeup tips for the senior set.

Others _ including four out of the top 10 Amazon.com best-sellers as of Wednesday morning _ offer insights and advice on achieving happiness, and people are quick to buy in. The much-talked-about book "The Secret," which is based on the premise that anyone can attract wealth, health and happiness through positive thinking, was so popular it was made into a movie by the same name.

In fact, the pursuit of happiness is so important that our Founding Fathers included it in the Declaration of Independence as one of the basic rights and freedoms guaranteed to all Americans. And we devote a whole lot of time, energy and money to the chase.

But the octogenarians in our midst seem to know something that the rest of us keep forgetting: Happiness is a state of mind, not something you can catch or get or find.

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Our society is full of mixed messages about aging. As soon as we enter the grown-up world, the carrot of "the good life" is dangled in front of us: Work hard, save up, invest wisely, and someday, you'll get to travel the world, write a novel and play golf all day.

We hear often about the perks of those "golden years:" senior discounts and tax exemptions, adoring grandkids who can be spoiled and sent back home, retirement communities with all the frills. Yet we still perceive getting older as a negative. We throw "last hurrah" parties and buy funny cards for friends turning 40 or 50. We procrastinate dealing with important issues such as making a will.

Most of all, we fear getting old. We associate age with disease, disability, loneliness, poverty, lost opportunity and the inevitability of death.

Will we ever become a culture that looks forward to getting older? Probably not. But studies like this one might help us to redefine our idea of happiness.

Maybe the real lesson here is the reminder that happiness is all about perception. It's not tied to what we have, what we've accomplished, how we look or how much money we make _ it's how we feel about ourselves and our lives.

So, as we get older, maybe we should spend a little less time obsessing over what we've lost and dreading what's to come. If we focus instead on appreciating the good things in our lives right now, we'll be happier at every age.

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Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.