Getting Better With Age: Why Seniors Are More Satisfied

The perks of growing old, and how to feel better now.

Happy retired couple
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What if you knew that everything was going to be OK? That life would work out just fine, maybe even infinitely better than that.

A friend of mine once posed that question during a summer road trip up the California coastline. Looking at the expanse of road and time ahead, we talked endlessly of our futures—who we might meet and marry and the contours of our careers. So the notion to release worry about what might be came as a revelation we could hardly fathom, let alone put into practice.

And that snapshot is precisely the portrait of youth, and its attendant tragedy. Amid the wonder of so much possibility comes the anxiety of the unknown. And so, as we get older, and the dust settles around the choices we've made and the dreams that were and weren't realized, we relax. The restlessness of youth gives way to contentedness in older age.

A study released this month by the National Council on Aging (NCOA), United Healthcare, and USA Today, found optimism among baby boomers and seniors, who felt the best years of their lives were still before them. The report adds to established research showing a profound correlation between advanced age and emotional well-being.

[See 11 Health Habits That Will Help You Live to 100]

"People put things into perspective," says Richard Birkel, who leads NCOA's Center for Healthy Aging. The challenges that occupy so much of life—careers and relationships, for example—become either moot or manageable among seniors, he says, noting that 90 percent of survey respondents reported confidence in their ability to handle stress. Then again, that generation interviewed had endured the Great Depression and World War II. "If you got through those two events in tact, I would have some confidence too that I was able to adjust to pretty much anything," Birkel says.

Bottom line: The drama of youth subsides with age. Just think about your first love. You likely felt wild highs and crushing lows on experiencing such intense emotions, without having developed the coping skills or perspective to handle them. That may explain why most people say they'd never want to return to the roller-coaster ride of their youth. In fact, surveys have found that when asked about their ideal age, people in their 80s say they'd like to be just 10 years younger, says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

It's what's known as "the paradox of aging," Carstensen says. "There's a lot of tough things that come with aging, and people still report that they're doing fine." What's happening is a shift in outlook. Despite, and perhaps because of, the trials of losing loved ones and physical duress, older people focus on the bright side of life. Aging produces a "linear decrease" in negative emotions, like anger and stress alongside an emergence of appreciation for life, she says, "so people are better off emotionally—there's no question there."

[See Can Your Mental Health Affect Your Longevity?]

Researchers have mapped happiness according to a "U-shaped" curve over the course of one's life. People's sense of well-being drops in mid-life, and climbs after about age 50, according to several, wide-ranging studies, which ascribe mid-life malaise to the demands of children and aging parents along with the realization of ambitions unmet.

However, the goals that emerge later in life tend to involve emotional satisfaction and, therefore, help bring it about, says Carstensen, explaining that where we put our attention dictates what we see and don't see. Or to quote Oprah, "What we dwell on is who we become." For older people, who tend to focus on savoring precious moments, "that's why they're looking at the sunset," or into their grandchildren's eyes, Carstensen says. Younger people, on the other hand, often need to focus on the future instead of the present, studying organic chemistry, for example, to become a doctor, or slogging through a singles event in the hopes of meeting a mate, she explains.