As Happy as an Old Person

As I’ve noted before, I’ve done a lot of reading on happiness. One consistent finding of studies across the spectrum is that older people are happier than the rest of us.

Despite the declining health that accompanies old age, study after study finds that happiness increases into our senior years.

The freedom of childhood is less happy. The health of young adulthood doesn’t compare. The financial stability of middle age doesn’t do it for us.

So what is it about seniors that makes them happy? And what can we learn from them?

The research is less conclusive on this issue. While everyone agrees that older folks are happier, there is great disagreement on why.

Today I want to explore a range of theories and discuss what we can learn from them. For the sake of trying to make our own lives happier, we will assume for today that all of these factors contribute to increased happiness in one way or another.

Focus on the Positive

A number of studies have found that one major reason older people are happier is that they focus on the positive.

Older folks tend to focus on happy memories more than sad memories. They think about the things they’ve achieved more than the things they’ve failed to achieve. They remember positive situations more than negative ones.

Studies also show that older adults are better at avoiding negative situations in the present. For example, they are quicker to cut out friends and acquaintances who bring them down.

Avoiding these people may feel like something that will cause social problems for you if you are young. Luckily for older folks, they have said in studies that one of the things that makes them the most happy is that they no longer care what people think.

This newfound ability allows older adults to avoid the negative and focus on the positive. This is something that the rest of us could aspire to.

Accept the negative

When older folks can’t avoid the negative, they accept it.

Studies have found that seniors are much better at accepting negative emotions and moving on. They are better able to recognize that some things are outside of our control and we do not benefit from our worrying about them.

One suspected reason is that “as people grow old, they experience more life events that are out of their control, such as disease and the death of loved ones.” As people encounter these events more often, they become better at dealing with them.

This acceptance of negative events outside of your control leads to great benefits. Older folks are less stressed, anxious, and angry than younger folks due to this ability.

If we can work towards accepting the things that are outside of our control, we too can harness these benefits.

Trust More

Another age-related finding is that people trust more as they get older.

This one seems much less directly connected to happiness at first glance. What does trust have to do with happiness?

It turns out, though, that trust actually does boost happiness. Trust in a someone else allows you to receive more benefits from that relationship, including support and comfort. Having more supportive and stronger relationships makes you happier.

And if one strong relationship makes you happy, then two strong relationships makes you even happier. If you are the type of person who is trusting, then you inject these benefits into all of your relationships.

If we trusted each other more, we could capture those happiness bonuses, as well.

Appreciate the Ordinary

One study compared happiness derived from ordinary experiences to happiness derived from extraordinary experiences. Think a walk in the park near your house compared to a trip overseas.

What the study found is that the happiness that we experience from extraordinary experiences is consistent over our lifespan. Everyone gets happiness boosts from this type of experience, whether you’re 18 or 80.

Ordinary experiences, on the other hand, grow more powerful over time. Younger folks, on the whole, don’t get much enjoyment out of that walk in the park. Older folks revel in it.

The general presumption is that this is because young people take ordinary experiences for granted. We foresee a long future and we can take that walk whenever we want and as often as we want. There’s no reason to value it right now.

Older folks recognize that our time here is limited. Every day is a gift and every experience, whether ordinary or extraordinary is something to savor.

This allows seniors to tap into an unlimited source of happiness that many of us miss out on every day.

If we want to be as happy as an old person, we need to recognize that our time is limited and that every moment is amazing.

Any other theories out there that I missed? Any thoughts that you have on why seniors are happier than the rest of us? Do you incorporate any of these tips in your life? Let us know in the comments!

20 thoughts on “As Happy as an Old Person”

  1. Awww, this is so sweet. I think there’s really something to the point about appreciating the ordinary more. I’m still a spring chicken, but even as I’ve aged and become an adult, I appreciate simple things like breezes and nice trees and fluffy animals. You come to realize that you’re not Superman and your time here really is limited; it makes you appreciate the little, beautiful things so much more.
    Mrs. Picky Pincher recently posted…How To Sell On Craigslist Without Getting MurderedMy Profile

    1. I think appreciating the ordinary is really powerful. I’ve been trying to work towards that more as I’ve been meditating and working on being more present in my life. It seems like a really simple way to live a happier life.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…Respond. Don’t React.My Profile

  2. A lot of this confirms what I’ve personally experienced. I’ve found a lot more self-acceptance as I get older. I have a greater appreciation for my strengths and weaknesses, and am much less willing to do things because “other people think/like/do it.” And I know what makes me stressed out, and can try to avoid it.

    I suspect there is a biological component as well. We know that in adolescence, hormones and brain chemistry make us feel things more intensely. With less intense feelings, it can be easier to guide them where you want to go.
    ,
    Emily @ JohnJaneDoe recently posted…Procrastinating My Way to Better FinancesMy Profile

    1. The biological component idea is definitely interesting. I considered that when I was doing the research for this article. Ultimately I didn’t include it because there’s no practical tips that we can take from that. I would not be surprised if you are right and that that is a piece of the puzzle, though.

      Thanks, Emily!
      Matt recently posted…Respond. Don’t React.My Profile

  3. Great post.

    I feel pretty darn happy in my mid-40s (okay, getting to be “upper-40s” I guess).

    A big part of that was downsizing our house, and life. Also adjusting our spending WAY downward to allow us to retire early. Resetting priorities and focusing on what is really important to us (health, family, travel, serving) has really changed everything.

    I would encourage everyone to take a look at their priorities and whether or not they are living in alignment with them – BEFORE they get “old”.
    Brad – MaximizeYourMoney.com recently posted…Personal budget percentages: Here’s where our money goesMy Profile

    1. Great advice, Brad. It’s very easy to get caught up in doing what everyone around you is doing and what you feel like you are supposed to be doing. Resetting priorities and getting to understand what you really want and enjoy can be a huge boost to happiness.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Matt recently posted…Respond. Don’t React.My Profile

  4. I really like the “focus on the positive” and “appreciate the ordinary”.

    It can be so easy to spiral into negativity. But when I focus on the positive and put a smile on my face, things tend to look a bit brighter 🙂

    And its amazing how glorious “ordinary” can be! My best memories, days and moments so far have been the ordinary times that bring joy in some way.

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. I agree with all of this. And both of these are just mindset shifts. You don’t need to buy anything or go to any classes or anything like that. Just think about them and you get to live a happier life.

      Thanks for the comment!
      Matt recently posted…Respond. Don’t React.My Profile

  5. The ‘trust more’ surprises me, but it’s good to hear. Acceptance is a biggie. I think the older one gets the easier it is to either accept something or remove it from their life, versus trying to change it.

    I also think seniors just don’t sweat stuff anymore. The are over (mostly) trying to impress, perfect, keep up, etc. They’ve learned where true happiness comes from.

  6. Interesting read, although I always had this image of the curmudgeonly old person sitting on a rocking chair on the porch yelling at people to get off the lawn. Maybe it’s all relative. Older people are happier compared to their younger self, and not necessarily happier than the rest of us. I do see how as you get older you also get a little wiser and learn from experience how to become happier.

    1. It’s always interesting working with large-scale demographic data and seeing whether it matches up with your perception. While our minds always go to the “get off my lawn!” seniors, it appears that they are actually in the minority!

      Thanks, Andrew.
      Matt recently posted…Respond. Don’t React.My Profile

  7. I have to admit that I am trying to get better at cutting people out that don’t bring me joy. I actually had a moment yesterday where someone was trying to co-op an idea of mine and monetize and in the past I would have tried to work with them begrudgingly. However, I said no and unfortunately that will probably sink the relationship but I’m honestly okay with it and didn’t think about it until your article. So I’m having a shorter memory which is good 🙂
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…Exciting Opportunities Living AbroadMy Profile

  8. As I’ve grown older I’ve grown more comfortable in my own skin, and I find that happiness comes more easily. I look forward to being a very happy 90 year old who has mastered the art of don’t-give-a-fuckitude. The more of life I live, I find that gratitude comes more easily to me. I’ve watched Life punch folks in the face and then kick them while they are down, and I am more grateful every day that thus far Life has chosen not to molest me or mine.
    Mrs. BITA recently posted…Ten FIRE Games to Pass the TimeMy Profile

  9. Ah this is sweet. I definitely agree that as we get older, we are less likely to put up with stuff from people and will cut them out which no bother.

    Whenever I’ve had friends be ridiculous, I’ve just said that’s not a problem, as I would rather not be friends with someone like that. Good to know that we will be happy in our old age 🙂 or maybe I will be that cantankerous old person who yells at kids to get off my yard! (I do this now, lol)

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