Do we get happier or sadder as we age?

As we get older, our minds and bodies begin to fail us. The signs of decline are becoming harder and harder to ignore.

This is one of the reasons why many seniors are afflicted with depression. But getting unhappier with each passing year is not a fait accompli.

Depending on what research catches your eye, you may conclude that feelings of anxiety and hopelessness increase in older people — or that we get happier as we age.

Which is it? Are we destined to break down and get cranky in our 80’s and 90’s? Or will these decades prove to be the richest and most rewarding of our lives?

We are more likely to become happier, believe it or not. Alison Gopnik, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, reviewed research across many cultures and countries and found that aging is not all doom and gloom.

“In several studies, when people were randomly ‘pinged’ during the day and asked to voice their feelings, older people were more likely to report positive feelings.” She wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, our attitude plays a big part in whether our luck will carry us through our golden years – or let us down.

“We have a choice in how we respond,” said Ilene Berns-Zare, PsyD, a Chicago-area executive and life coach. “Recent research shows that optimism changes the way we interpret stressful situations. So there is always a choice.”

If you’re plagued by anticipatory fears about the prospect of aging, you’re already in trouble. You will look for evidence to back up your pessimism. And when you find it (“More wrinkles!”), your mood turns sour.

Instead, give yourself the gift of encouragement. Spend time with friends or crafters who share your passion. Busy pleasant distractions like community gatherings — from attending rallies in support of an important cause to guest speakers at the library — that divert your focus from useless worries about getting older.

“Perhaps you are filled with mixed feelings [about aging]said Berns-Zare. “Yes, there are ups and downs. So ask yourself, “How do I want to focus my attention in this moment?”

People who practice gratitude tend to age without holding grudges. Fleeting pleasures do not come naturally to them.

Identify three things you’re grateful for each day, says Berns-Zare. From a budding flower to a warm bagel, consciously acknowledge what’s good and celebrate it, if only briefly.

You’re also more likely to feel happy finding meaning in everyday tasks, from finding a sick neighbor to cutting out an item and mailing it to a friend.

“As people age, meaning and purpose are so important to building well-being,” said Berns-Zare.

Part of the challenge for seniors is that they attend more funerals the longer they live. You have to deal with the loss of loved ones – and that flattens the curve of happiness.

“Loneliness is associated with depression,” said Deborah Heiser, Ph.D., an applied developmental psychologist in Long Island, New York.

Like Berns-Zare, Heiser emphasizes the importance of making the decision to treat aging as a new chapter in life, not as a soul-crushing prelude to death.

As an aging specialist, Heiser says older people often ask her, “What do I have to look forward to?”

“We can choose the footprint we leave on the world,” she replies.

You can assume the worst and wait for it to unfold as the days simmer with fear. Or you can adopt what Heiser calls “generative behaviors” to leave your mark on the next generation. Examples include volunteering, philanthropic giving and mentoring others.

Even when you’re experiencing physical decline—a downward spiral of illness and injury—the decision to leave a positive legacy can in itself energize you.

Making the world a better place doesn’t require grand gestures or heroic sacrifices. You’ll feel happier just by sharing what you’ve learned or by showing empathy and kindness.

Collect your favorite recipes in a booklet that you can give away. Help the teachers at a local school. Take opportunities to write cards to commemorate milestones in the lives of others (graduations, promotions, anniversaries, etc.).

“It’s all part of making your life more meaningful and purposeful,” Heiser said. Do we get happier or sadder as we age?

Brian Lowry

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