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The Optimist Oldster

December 20, 2012 By:
Lauren Kramer, Special Sections Feature
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When USA Today partnered with UnitedHealthCare and the National Council on Aging this past summer, the goal for the three organizations was to gauge the attitudes of Americans age 60 and older.

What they discovered, in a word, was happiness. The 2,250 adults polled said they were optimistic about the future and happy about their health, their homes and their finances.

Which begs the question: What do they know that the rest of us don’t? According to Tal Ben Shahar, an Israel-based author of The Science of Happiness and Choose the Life You Want, seniors understand what’s truly important in life. “The number one predictor of well-being is quality time we spend with people we care about and who care about us,” he says.

“We all know this, but seniors are more likely to live according to this understanding. Also, they’re a lot more accepting,” he explains. “They are more forgiving of themselves and accepting of their emotions.”

What’s more, seniors are more prone to take time to savor life than are other generations. “In our crazy busy world, most of us don’t take time to appreciate or be grateful for the things in life we have — instead we focus on what we’re missing,” Ben Shahar says. “Seniors are more likely to appreciate those things. They’re truly ready to make the most of what they have.”

He quotes Mark Twain, who once said, ‘If I knew grandchildren were so much fun, I would have had them first.”

“But it’s not just about the grandchildren, it’s also about grandparents who are at an age when they can truly appreciate those relationships,” he says.

Some of that appreciation and gratefulness may stem from an awareness seniors have that they are running out of time. “The elderly may feel they cannot waste time any more on unimportant things and concerns,” Ben Shahar speculates.  

Jeff Gitterman, a financial adviser in Woodbridge, N.J., has watched many clients move into retirement mode. “Those that survive well are the ones who have hobbies and interests beyond work,” he says. “If your identity is tied too closely to work, seniors tend to become very depressed in retirement, especially men.”

The happiest retirees Gitterman sees have three things in common: a sense they’d accomplished something over the course of their career, an identity that wasn’t too wrapped up in their jobs, and a schedule of purposeful time commitments for their retirement. “Whether it’s volunteering or taking care of grandchildren, a consistent schedule helps offset the feeling of being set adrift in retirement,” he says.

Happier individuals tend to live longer, while those who are not as happy die sooner, cautions Dr. Alex Lickerman, primary care physician at the University of Chicago and author of The Undefeated Mind: On the science of Constructing an Indestructible Self. “That means that polls like this could reveal a measurement artifact, because the people being polled are the happier ones who have survived longer because they are happy.”

Lickerman notes that older people are more likely to use downward social comparison, or to compare themselves to others who are less fortunate than themselves. “Older people also have smaller discrepancies between their expectations and their achievements,” he says. “There’s not as great a difference between what they expect to have happen and what actually happens.”

As a result, they are much less in conflict with themselves and more prone to wisdom and insight, which helps them handle life’s adversities better. “They don’t struggle with self-esteem issues as much as younger people, and they tend not to have as extreme emotional reactions,” Lickerman reflects.

“As life goes on, and there is more trauma to face, they tend to ride fewer highs and lows than those in their teens and mid-20s.”

His observations have led him to conclude that seniors are happier because they have grown into life more than younger people. “Life does teach you things, and it makes you hardier to some extent,” he says.

You’d think that younger people might be willing to learn from the older generation about life and the secret to lasting happiness — but they’re not doing that, and it keeps Ben Shahar up at night. “In our technological world you’re obsolete in your 30s and 40s,” he reflects. “But in the area of well-being and life, there’s a great deal the young can learn from the old.

“In my opinion, this explains some of the reason for much unhappiness that exists in younger generations today.

The young would do well to learn from the wisdom acquired over the years by the elderly.”

South African native Lauren Kramer is an award-winning writer based in Western Canada. This article appeared originally in "The Good Life," a special section.

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