As an elder law attorney, I spend a lot of my day working with people older than myself. We get together to plan for their “elder years.” You might think that my job would be extremely depressing. But it’s not! I really enjoy the work that I do and the people I get to meet are generally happy. It turns out they have a reason to be: THE U-BEND OF LIFE.
Having worked in the field of aging for twenty years, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of the “U-BEND” before. A recent article in The Economist magazine explained it pretty well. People are most happy when they are young and when they are old. It turns out, we hit our unhappiest bottom at an average age of 46.
There are many theories about why this happens, but the statistics are universal. Happiness and well-being have been the subjects of numerous studies around the world. Dartmouth College looked at 72 countries and found that enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, stress goes up in the early 20s but falls sharply after and worry peaks in middle age. They found that anger declines throughout life and sadness declines after a peak in middle life.
Researchers tried to find external factors (different life experiences, education or money) that could explain these statistics. It turns out that increased happiness is most likely the result of internal changes and that people behave differently at different ages. Older people are better at conflict resolution and have fewer arguments. They tend to be better at controlling their emotions and less pone to anger. Older people are better at accepting misfortune.
One explanation for why we tend to get happier as we age is that people begin to accept themselves for who they are and stop striving to become something different. For example, they are ok about singing in the church choir instead of at the Metropolitan Opera. It’s all right to be a bank branch manager instead of the CEO.
Perhaps aging, itself, becomes a relief when we stop struggling against it. William James is quoted as saying, “How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young – or slender.”
The U-BEND has another side effect beyond the emotional benefit, happy people are statistically healthier! Happier people are less likely to catch a virus and will recover more quickly. So although older people tend to be less healthy than younger people, their cheery attitude may help. Happier people are also more productive. This may be good news for our aging workforce.
So, although you may not believe it, and many people think that an aging population is a problem to be solved, we have reason to look forward to our elder years. Studies prove it. Aging is something to look forward to!
(Many of my colleagues in other fields work all day with people in their forties and fifties. I get to be with older people all day. I think I picked the right job!)
Laurie Menzies is Senior Partner at Pfalzgraf, Beinhauer & Menzies, the only WNY law firm that focuses solely on elder law and estate planning. She is a frequent speaker on topics of aging and the Author of Embracing Elderhood: Planning for the Next Stage of Life.