Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The U-Bend on Happiness

Sitting on his front porch, gently rocking, the man waved and gave me a smile. The old man in a yellow sweater embodied what mind needed most in that moment. The gift of quiet contentment, nothing to be had. Since my walk last night, I have been carrying his image. 

According to the following graph, my age puts me at the lowest point on the well-being scale . . . No wonder I have been feeling so much angst!

I am not sure I want to wait thirty more years to reach the old man's bliss . . . These older folks know something I don't and I want to learn from them:

Older people have fewer rows and come up with better solutions to conflict. They are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less prone to anger. In one study, for instance, subjects were asked to listen to recordings of people supposedly saying disparaging things about them. Older and younger people were similarly saddened, but older people less angry and less inclined to pass judgment, taking the view, as one put it, that “you can’t please all the people all the time.”

There are various theories as to why this might be so. Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University, talks of “the uniquely human ability to recognise our own mortality and monitor our own time horizons”. Because the old know they are closer to death, she argues, they grow better at living for the present. They come to focus on things that matter now—such as feelings—and less on long-term goals. “When young people look at older people, they think how terrifying it must be to be nearing the end of your life. But older people know what matters most.” For instance, she says, “young people will go to cocktail parties because they might meet somebody who will be useful to them in the future, even though nobody I know actually likes going to cocktail parties.”

There are other possible explanations. Maybe the sight of contemporaries keeling over infuses survivors with a determination to make the most of their remaining years. Maybe people come to accept their strengths and weaknesses, give up hoping to become chief executive or have a picture shown in the Royal Academy, and learn to be satisfied as assistant branch manager, with their watercolour on display at the church fete. “Being an old maid”, says one of the characters in a story by Edna Ferber, an (unmarried) American novelist, was “like death by drowning—a really delightful sensation when you ceased struggling.” Perhaps acceptance of ageing itself is a source of relief. “How pleasant is the day”, observed William James, an American philosopher, “when we give up striving to be young—or slender.”

Accepting, enjoying the present . . . 


  1. Angst because you found the graph, actually. Giving rise to an old feeling.

  2. I've got another theory to explain that graph: at age 50 the average American has teenagers at home.

  3. interesting graph and I suppose we can surmise all kinds of things. Perhaps in our 50's we begin to see that we are no longer young and beautiful, the body begins to show signs of aging. Perhaps our initial waking up to our own mortality and to the fact that if we are not yet rich and famous, chances are we don't imagine that is yet to come. And there we are at this juncture of unrealized hopes and new fears.

    And perhaps by 80 many realize the wisdom in not arguing with what is? Perhaps many needs and desires just fall away and with less life force left in us, we decide not to use it foolishly????

    Interesting to ponder.

  4. Michael Odom @miko57May 4, 2011 at 9:42 PM

    Very interesting. And, I'm right there at the bottom with you, Marguerite. Jeff may have a point, though. I've got two at home! But, I have been thinking a lot lately about letting go of trying to feel younger. And, surprise! I feel younger at the point of letting go. Something I imagine those in the upper part of the graph know well.

  5. At 33 it looks like I'm the cusp of the downhill spiral!

    I love psychology and this is a very interesting graph - thanks so much for sharing. I think we can have some optimism and hope that by committing to a steady meditation practice and self-inquiry, we will be able to discover the innate wisdom and happiness within that older generations have found by simply letting go and being with what is with full acceptance.

  6. Nate, yes, that's the idea! It always thrills me to see very young people engaged in the practice of mindfulness. What a gift to themselves, and the world! Not waiting for ailing body and frustrating life circumstances to drive home the inevitability of impermanence, and the wisdom of acceptance . . .

    Meanwhile being patient with myself, and mind, for taking the time to realize.:)

  7. Michael, I too have had 'two', although no longer at home, at least not on a daily basis . . . That and a number of other wearing circumstances :) Paradoxically, those life difficulties have been the main impetus for my practice. And without them, I probably would not have engaged in this most beautiful path!

  8. Carole (zendotstudio), I love that, 'not arguing with what is'! How much time I spend arguing . . . Of course, at the root is clinging to pleasantness, playing favorites with phenomena. A human tendency deeply engrained into our DNA, and that requires all our mindfulness muscle to unseat.

  9. Jeff, I wish you well and lots of patience and equanimity. I also hope you have a support network to turn to when things get rough. :)

  10. Was Once, thanks for the link. Great video!

    I actually woke up this morning in a different mind state. Not quite free from suffering, but not interested in spending time there either. I woke up and saw the bright Spring light, and I heard the birds singing, and I appreciated body and mind working as they are supposed to. And I thought, 'What's wrong with this moment? nothing indeed . . .' Stressors still there, but the relationship to it is different. At the base is realization of the preciousness of life, and not wanting to waste what is.

    Thank you.

  11. M,
    You have your reincarnation jump started in your children, everything you learn and plant in them will be a lasting memory of you. I hope you or they will save this to read when they want to ...when they hit the "hard parts" of life. How you felt, thought, and dealt...just think the more joy you project now on these pages will translate to more joy for them.