Does Age Bring Happiness?
Before my birthday last year, someone tried to console me by advising me to ignore the whole thing because, after a certain age, birthdays bring nothing but misery. I was surprised by the comment for two primary reasons. First, I never said that I felt stressed by another birthday. Second, I enjoy my birthdays. So all of you know, I will be 68 years old this coming October 2010. Does growing older cause unhappiness? Let's discuss that question.
According to Erik Erikson, we go through eight stages of psychosocial development. Each stage is gradually built upon previous stages and affects the stages that are next in line. Therefore, the previous stage of development has a profound impact on each of the next stages. At each level we experience from birth to old age, we face a challenge or crisis. Resolution of each crisis is critical to our over all well being as human beings. In all, Erikson is describing the gradual development of each individual person's ego or personality. This development carries with it an increasing amount of individuality and strength to meet the challenges of life.
Here are Erikson's Eight Stages of Psychosocial Development:
1. Trust vs. Mistrust.
2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt.
3. Initiative vs. Guilt
4. Industry vs. Inferiority
5. Identity vs. Role Confusion (Adolescence)
6. Intimacy vs. Isolation
7. Generativity vs. Stagnation
8. Integrity vs. Despair (Old Age)
What Erikson is stating about the ageing process is that there is nothing inevitable about old age being miserable and unhappy. In fact, he is making it clear that, as a person enters old age, he or she looks back on their life as fulfilled if they lived as fully as possible.
The results of a Gallup poll were published in the May 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Evidently, people tend to feel happier when they are older as compared to younger people. The poll was taken of 340,000 people aged 18 to 85, across the nation.
According to the survey, young people begin life feeling good about themselves. However, as they encounter life's inevitable challenges, they start to feel worse until the age of about 50. For some reason, things start to change again so that, from 50 onwards, people feel much better. In fact, those who were in their 80's seemed to feel the best.
Unfortunately, the researchers did not delve into the reasons why aging brings with it a sense of happiness and contentment.
As someone who is about to turn 68 and who worked in Geriatric Psychiatry for a number of years, I am skeptical about this piece of research. Part of the problem of a lot of research in sociology and psychology is that those based on surveys use statistical analysis that speaks about the normal curve of the population. The normal curve describes the average and further demonstrates the degree of wavering away from the average. Perhaps it is true that, on average, people experience happiness after age fifty.
However, my experience working in geriatric psychiatry was of an ageing population that was as unhappy in old age as they were in their youth. Age seemed to bring little or no relief or mellowing. Those who remained married fought with one another as much or more than when they were younger. Those who were alone due to death of a spouse and loss of friends were no more or less depressed than earlier in their lives.
The evidence for these statements came from patient charts that were started years prior to old age. In other words, these patients aged along with the clinic they were attending. In addition, their adult children who sometimes accompanied them to the sessions, reported long and conflicted histories with their parents.
I do believe that there is nothing inevitable about age bringing decline and misery. I know of many people who, in their eighties, are as sharp and alive as when they were fifty years younger.
Perhaps Erikson was correct when he stated that old age is the stage at which people experience integrity or despair. Many of the elderly people I worked with in geriatric psychiatry were experiencing despair at the end of their lives.
The message that I get from all of this and that I want to convey to my readers is that it is important to live fully NOW. In a coming article I will discuss "happiness" and "self hate." Self hate prevents us from living fully unless we do something put a stop to it.
Speaking for myself, ageing has brought a greater sense of contentment and self confidence to me than I experienced at any other time in my life.
Your comments and opinions are strongly encouraged.
Allan N. Schwartz, PhD