When I’m sixty-four

Sixty used to sound pretty old. That was when people were retiring, winding down and playing a lot of golf and bridge. Sixty-year olds wore cardigans and glasses and enjoyed their garden, their grandchildren and their bus pass.

But when I look around at friends who are nearing or beyond sixty, I see a very different picture. These are vibrant people involved in new business ventures, undertaking purposeful travels, learning new skills and starting community projects. I see energetic people engaged in their own growth and development, embarking on new relationships, and expressing themselves creatively and intellectually.

Maybe sixty is the new forty, or perhaps there is something more to be understood about growing older.

A new branch of economics is attempting to measure human well-being in a more satisfactory way than by using money. Bhutan leads the way with a Gross National Happiness index, and this idea is beginning to shape planning processes in other countries, including the UK. A recent article in The Economist (18/12/10) reveals a fascinating picture. There are four main factors that influence our level of happiness: gender (women are slightly happier than men), personality (extroverts are happier than introverts, and neurotics are the unhappiest), external circumstances (education and money help) and age (the 70+ people are happiest).

When people of all ages are asked to predict how happy they will be at various life stages, there is an assumption that happiness, like physical fitness, declines with age. But a new meta-study that looked at countless statistics and studies over the past forty years, in over seventy countries, reveals a ‘happiness U-bend’. As young adults we are generally pretty cheerful, but that declines steadily to middle age. The nadir varies among countries —Ukrainians are at their most miserable at 62, while the Swiss hit the bottom at 35– but in most countries people are at their unhappiest in their 40’s or early 50’s. The global average is 46.

But then there is good news; it’s all up from there. We enjoy life more after middle age.

Even allowing for cultural variations, the experience of growing up during a war or in boom years, or of being rich or poor; it seems our emotional well-being is not much affected by external circumstances as by some internal process.

Studies show that people behave differently at different ages. Younger adults are more volatile, and more prone to depression and anxiety. Worry peaks in mid age, anger declines throughout life and sadness rises slightly in middle age, and then falls thereafter.

Older people argue less and have better solutions to conflict. They can control emotions more effectively, and are less critical and angry, and more accepting of others. The result is a more cheerful disposition, and a happier person.

And being happy has many benefits, beyond enjoying life more. It also means being healthier. Happy people are likely to be more active and are less susceptible to illness, and they recover or heal faster than stressed people. And there’s more; it turns out that happy people are more productive, being better at problem solving and sustaining attention.

My friends are enjoying growing vegetables and playing with their grandchildren, but some are also riding bicycles from England to Iran, playing in a Bob Dylan tribute band and writing film scripts.

As an educated woman, with an extrovert personality it would seem I have much to look forward to. So rather than worrying about the aging population being a burden on society, we can choose to see the benefits of living in a more cheerful, optimistic world.

First you are young
then you are middle-aged
then you are old
then you are wonderful
— Lady Diana Cooper

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