After my experience with Andy, I started asking friends and colleagues, most of them in their 30’s, about their concerns regarding their own mortality. Most said that while they know that they will likely grow old and definitely die, they just don’t think about it much. “Healthy denial, Dobrenski,” I was told. The nursing home experience made me realize that I have an issue with aging, which is actually ahead of schedule for men in my family.
While Freud would have told me that this is my mother’s fault and physiological psychologists would say it is genetic, my gripe is with society. Western culture constantly inundates us with the importance of being young, looking young, and staying young. While we rationally know that youth is transient, hearing about how awful it is to be old will stick in your mind if you hear it enough.
Trying to explain my neurosis to Dr. John is complicated. He is not a Master of Empathy but rather a “stop acting like a little bitch and pull it together” type of psychologist. Sitting in a tight corner of an over-crowded Italian restaurant in Manhattan, 37 year-old child therapist Dr. John shovels pasta into his mouth and onto the napkin covering his chest. After he inhales half of a large bowl of fuscilli with maninara, Dr. John is ready to begin counseling me.
“Have you gotten over that ‘I have a lot of work to do’ bullshit that you wrote about?”
“Yes John, it only took two weeks, I’m a whole new person. Thirty-five years of neurosis down the drain.”
“You know,” he says, pointing a fork at me. “Sarcasm isn’t really your thing. You need some other outlet to express your problems.”
“I go to therapy every week and she’s really helping me to forgive myself for the way I talked to Andy before he died.”
“Fuck that shit, I’m talking about having a creative outlet.”
“I write ShrinkTalk, you dumb dick!”
“Right,” Dr. John says, patronizingly. “Good stuff. Anyway, this might make you feel better.”
Dr. John takes out a small stack of paper: research on aging and happiness, the most recent being an article from Yahoo! News. I pore over it while Dr. John chomps away. Although I knew that older people suffered less psychological disorders than younger people, I didn’t pick up on a recent study that suggests that the elderly actually become happier over time. “The truth is, people generally get happier as they age,” according to Laura Carstensen, an expert on aging at Stanford. “How often one feels sad, angry, disgusted, contemptuous – that frequently declines. And in addition to that, when negative emotions occur, they don’t last as long.” Apparently Dr. Carstensen has studied people from age 18 to over 100.
So we get happier as we get older. Why? Decreased health, less vitality, a loss of physical attractiveness and a generally shunning by society are all part of getting older. So why look forward to being a senior citizen? Recent research highlights two points in support of the premise that “it gets better with age”:
1) Knowing what you want: Dr. Carstensen points out that “when people perceive time is limited, they focus more on well-being. They get rid of the riff-raff in their lives and select the people who are most important.” Other researchers agree, pointing out that older people are more adept at both avoiding and adjusting to what bothers them.
2) Less financial stress: As long as health and basic finances are intact, older people more easily buy into the concept that money doesn’t buy happiness. Research shows that, as long as there is some sense of security and comfort, happiness increases very little with more money. While the elderly are often retired and not generating excessive incomes, if they’ve prepared just enough to retire at a reasonable level of security, the stress of needing to pay for children, education, and mortgage is generally gone.
What ultimately makes the elderly happier, however, can be summarized in one word: wisdom. Older people usually have it, and younger people usually don’t. Seniors know what’s important in their life. They don’t make mountains out of molehills, they don’t treat every hassle as a catastrophe, they don’t get bogged down by what others think about them. Wisdom allows you to focus on what you can change and do it, while letting go of what is out of your control. While intelligence can get you academic success, a great job, money and companionship, wisdom puts all of those things into perspective for you. Apparently, it takes most of your life to collect.
“Fascinating stuff, John” I admit.
“You feel better now, you neurotic freak?”
“A little, yeah.”
“Too bad you’re not wise.”
“Not yet, but I will be. You?”
“Are you kidding?! I am as wise as they get! Why do you think all the moms in my practice want me?”
“Well, they pay you to spend time with their kids, maybe they think they can get your services for free if they just date you.”
“You don’t date your patients’ mothers, do you?”
Dr. John just stared for a few seconds, with the ever-so-slightest hint of a smirk. “Do you really want to know?”
“You’re opening up a serious can of worms here, John, and you know I like to write about colleagues. Unless you keep your mouth shut, you will be an entry on my site.”
To be continued…