When I was younger I felt certain that sadness and aging were companions united in a conspiracy to ruin the last years of a life. After all, everyone I knew in their sixties and older experienced aches, couldn’t play sports like they used to, and didn’t like to drive at night. Who could be happy when their worlds were shrinking, their stamina lessening and their eyes deteriorating?
It’s true that not everyone welcomes aging. Writer Eknath Easwaran says, “People who identify themselves with their body often find the latter half of life a great burden.” I just heard from a friend of mine that her daughter, who is in her thirties, received an invitation to a “Poker Face” party from a group of forty-something moms whose children attend the same private school. The title refers to a botox treatment, which temporarily freezes your face and your smile. This sounds like a group that won’t welcome “the latter half of life.”
But I was wrong to think that most people would find old age depressing. In the book Rapt, Behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher says, “Despite certain obvious declines, elders’ emotional well-being is as good as, if not better than, that of younger people.” She believes the reason is “their increased skill in focusing on things that foster feelings of contentment…Compared with the young, the old experience fewer unpleasant emotions and just as many delightful ones. They’re also more satisfied with their relationships and better at solving problems that crop up in them.” When we’re young we pay more attention to negative information. Remember feeling stung during those teenage years, despite the large number of friends you had, when you learned that one popular kid had said something negative about you behind your back? By middle age we view the negative in a more balanced way, but are still predisposed to dwell on it over the positive. But by the time people are older, “they’re likely to have a strong positive bias in what they both attend to and remember.” This bias may lead to better health and longevity.
As I think about my life and aging, what Ms. Gallagher says makes sense. I now start each day by telling myself, “Life is good.” I’m much better at brushing off comments and actions that I would have dwelled on as offenses at a younger age. Arguments with my husband end amicably. Where we focus our attention provides one explanation for mellowing as we age, but so is our recognition that life is short, too short to perseverate on things that don’t matter. (Unless, of course, we see a few deep lines in our foreheads and think a poker face could help. Better yet, we could combine a treatment with a trip to Las Vegas).