That’s a question that Dr. Laura Carstensen regularly fields after explaining why older people are happier than younger ones—the basis of the ubiquitous Happiness U-curve. As I admit in my talk, I didn’t really believe the curve existed until I understood why. Carstensen, a psychologist and the founder of the Stanford Longevity Center, explains it beautifully.
Last month the Atlantic magazine’s cover story described living past 75 as pretty darn inadvisable. Now, in quite the about-face, the December cover story champions the Happiness U-Curve (or “U-shaped Happiness Curve," as I’ve been calling it, or “U-bend” in Britspeak): : the growing body of research showing, in writer Jonathan Rausch’s words, that “we reliably grow happier, regardless of circumstances, after our 40s.”
Caption: An analysis by the Brookings scholars Carol Graham and Milena Nikolova, drawing on Gallup polls, shows a clear relationship between age and well-being in the United States. Respondents rated their life satisfaction relative to the “best possible life” for them, with 0 being worst and 10 being best.
I’m putting a flyer together for my upcoming talk at the KGB Bar, and ran it past a colleague who’s a designer. She got halfway through the headline—“a monologue about why Americans are so ambivalent about growing old”—and blurted, “I’m not ambivalent about it!”
“How do you feel about getting old?” I asked.
“Do you want to die young?” Stephanie shook her head.
“Then you’re ambivalent.” D’oh.
At 50, Karl Pillemer had a revelation about his career. After 25 years as gerontologist, he found himself focused almost entirely on problems like elder abuse and isolation: “the Book of Job for older people,” as he put it at the 2012 Age Boom seminar for journalists. This conformed to the general portrayal of olders as frail and debilitated, and was reinforced by researchers “because focusing on problems is how we get funding.” But not only had this stopped feeling fulfilling, it didn’t jibe with his actual experience, and so an outreach project was born.
By way of swag, everyone attending last week’s five-day Columbia Journalism School Age Boom Academy on “Covering the myths and realities of aging in America” received a canvas tote packed with print hand-outs. I was struck by a juxtaposition between two that I read the first night.