A few months ago, Ezekiel Emanuel had an essay in The Atlantic saying that, all things considered, he’d prefer to die around age 75. He argued that he’d rather clock out with all his powers intact than endure a sad, feeble decline.
The problem is that if Zeke dies at 75, he’ll likely be missing his happiest years. When researchers ask people to assess their own well-being, people in their 20s rate themselves highly. Then there’s a decline as people get sadder in middle age, bottoming out around age 50. But then happiness levels shoot up, so that old people are happier than young people. The people who rate themselves most highly are those ages 82 to 85.
Psychologists who study this now famous U-Curve tend to point out that old people are happier because of changes in the brain. For example, when you show people a crowd of faces, young people unconsciously tend to look at the threatening faces but older people’s attention gravitates toward the happy ones.
Older people are more relaxed, on average. They are spared some of the burden of thinking about the future. As a result, they get more pleasure out of present, ordinary activities.
My problem with a lot of the research on happiness in old age is that it is so deterministic. It treats the aging of the emotional life the way you might treat the aging of the body: as this biological, chemical and evolutionary process that happens to people.
I’d rather think that elder happiness is an accomplishment, not a condition, that people get better at living through effort, by mastering specific skills. I’d like to think that people get steadily better at handling life’s challenges. In middle age, they are confronted by stressful challenges they can’t control, like having teenage children. But, in old age, they have more control over the challenges they will tackle and they get even better at addressing them.
Aristotle teaches us that being a good person is not mainly about learning moral rules and following them. It is about performing social roles well - being a good parent or teacher or lawyer or friend.
It’s easy to think of some of the skills that some people get better at over time.
First, there’s bifocalism, the ability to see the same situation from multiple perspectives. Anthony Kronman of Yale Law School once wrote, “Anyone who has worn bifocal lenses knows that it takes time to learn to shift smoothly between perspectives and to combine them in a single field of vision. The same is true of deliberation. It is difficult to be compassionate, and often just as difficult to be detached, but what is most difficult of all is to be both at once.”
Only with experience can a person learn to see a fraught situation both close up, with emotional intensity, and far away, with detached perspective.
Then there’s lightness, the ability to be at ease with the downsides of life. In their book “Lighter as We Go,” Jimmie Holland and Mindy Greenstein (who is a friend from college) argue that while older people lose memory they also learn that most setbacks are not the end of the world. Anxiety is the biggest waste in life. If you know that you’ll recover, you can save time and get on with it sooner.
“The ability to grow lighter as we go is a form of wisdom that entails learning how not to sweat the small stuff,” Holland and Greenstein write, “learning how not to be too invested in particular outcomes.”
Then there is the ability to balance tensions. In “Practical Wisdom,” Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe argue that performing many social roles means balancing competing demands. A doctor has to be honest but also kind. A teacher has to instruct but also inspire. You can’t find the right balance in each context by memorizing a rule book. This form of wisdom can be earned only by acquiring a repertoire of similar experiences.
Finally, experienced heads have intuitive awareness of the landscape of reality, a feel for what other people are thinking and feeling, an instinct for how events will flow. In “The Wisdom Paradox,” Elkhonon Goldberg details the many ways the brain deteriorates with age: brain cells die, mental operations slow. But a lifetime of intellectual effort can lead to empathy and pattern awareness.
“What I have lost with age in my capacity for hard mental work,” Goldberg writes, “I seem to have gained in my capacity for instantaneous, almost unfairly easy insight.”
It’s comforting to know that, for many, life gets happier with age. But it’s more useful to know how individuals get better at doing the things they do. The point of culture is to spread that wisdom from old to young; to put that thousand-year-heart in a still young body.