Through the daily grapevine of popular culture, we get the message over and over that young is better than old. But new research contradicts these age-old stereotypes. Indeed, studies suggest that the older you get, the happier you become.
If you're surprised, it's probably because you associate old age with disease, depression and disability.
The advantages of being older are that you're settled, you've accomplished things in life, and you're more content with the way you are, experts say. You feel good about yourself from having tested yourself out in the world and achieved success. You might want to be 19 again, but you don't remember the turmoil of being 19.
Those fabulous 50s
These findings were backed up by a study at the University of Georgia, in which two sets of interviews were conducted with the same people, first when they were ages 59 to 80, then 14 years later.
In the earlier set of interviews, the largest percentage chose their 50s as the most satisfying period of their lives. An additional 18 percent picked their 60s and 70s. The childhood and teen years emerged as the unhappiest times; the 30s produced nearly equal feedback as being the best and worst years.
When the same people were surveyed 14 years later, many of the responses remained the same. But 8 percent now said their 80s were the best years.
The common stereotype is that aging is all downhill, but experts say that we should be anticipating good years rather than poor years. After age 50, factors such as more leisure and travel time, the feeling of having "made it," and freedom after the children are grown all figure into the equation.
Particularly for women and older men, happiness tended to hinge on family concerns, the researchers said. They received pleasure from seeing their children successful and happy, or they were unhappy because a child was unsettled.
Although ill health and financial problems may cause unhappiness at a particular age, those factors are not necessarily related to aging. Older adults who don't have these problems are no more likely to be depressed than people at other stages of life.
Your personality changes little after the age of 30, according to the National Institute on Aging. Thus, a person's outlook at age 30 is the best predictor of how happy he or she will be at age 80. If you're a bright, cheery, optimistic person early in life, you'll stay that way as you age. Depression is not a normal accompaniment of aging, barring illness or trauma.
Grow as you age
Experts offer this advice for satisfying senior years:
Continue to acquire new skills. Develop a hobby. Learn a foreign language. Many people believe that thinking skills naturally deteriorate as you age. But research shows that people who keep learning tend to retain their mental sharpness.
Be concerned about others. Volunteer, keep pets, make friends with neighbors—anything that keeps you meeting people. Researchers note these two attributes among older adults who've kept youthful attitudes: They maintain close relationships and they remain involved in the community.
Exercise. You can improve your strength, flexibility and endurance with a surprisingly small amount of effort. The benefits for your physical health will be equaled by the benefits to your mental outlook.