According to Mr. Conventional Wisdom, that notorious bullshit artist, happiness in life is an inexorable downward slide. We may be happy when young and carefree, when zits and sex are our main worries. Or perhaps during the 30s and 40s when we fall in love, buy a house and develop a career, and if we're lucky pile up some money and possessions and even a bit fame.
Not so when you retire and get old. Not older, mind you, but seriously old: Like when you stumble past your sixtieth birthday and head for the home stretch. Except the end of this horse race is a hole in the ground not a bottle of champagne or a cheering crowd. Even if you live to be 90 years old, an unusually long run, when you get to be 60 two-thirds of your life is already over.
So a recent article in The Economist magazine (Dec. 16) that a friend e-mailed to me caught my attention: It says that beyond middle age people actually become happier. In fact, the trend in day-to-day feelings of happiness, plotted over a lifetime, looks like an inverted bell curve. People are relatively happy during their teens, but then things start getting gloomier and bottom out at middle age. Past that middle-age gulch, there's an upswing in happiness and well-being.
Didn't sound too plausible to me either. Particularly in a community of gray-haired, retired ex-pats like we have in San Miguel, where at times you feel part of a caravan of sputtering '48 Chevys. You keep hearing about other people's mechanical problems: leaky oil pans, balky transmissions and worn-out break pads, or who fell down where or broke what. Friends mention diseases and ailments you'd never heard of before and which sadly, sometimes involve close friends.
Such preoccupations are reflected on the Civil List, an ex-pat Internet bulletin board where a good part of the chatting revolves around about doctors and treatments--from mainstream to wu-wu to out-and-out quackery--for what essentially is the incurable condition known as "old age." A couple of weeks ago someone on the Civil List was looking for a "lymphatic draining masseuse." Yesterday I heard about a local doctor who treats macular degeneration by injecting stem cells around the eyes. Quick, someone notify the Mayo Clinic about all these breakthroughs.
All this talk begins to affect you. Is a nasty cough a prelude to throat cancer--how many packs of cigarettes did I smoke and for how long?--or a creaky knee an unmistakable symptom of some sort of catastrophic degenerative disease?
Yet according to the article, life bottoms out at around age 46, and things begin to look up after that. "Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure--vitality, mental sharpness and looks--they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness."
The research is complicated. Obviously, a number of factors are involved, such as gender (women are slightly happier than men), personality, and personal circumstances. But the inverted bell curve pattern holds true throughout the world, with some curious variations. For Ukrainians the midlife crisis comes at around 62, while the Swiss experience it at 35. But most people are reportedly most unhappy during their 40s and 50s, and the global average for the low point in personal happiness is around 46 years old.
It seems the key variable in geezer happiness is growing acceptance of one's circumstances. Older people are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less likely to anger, according to the article. Lofty expectations that stressed you out during midlife become more realistic. A Pulitzer Prize or a show of one's photographs at New York's Museum of Modern Art are not likely but that's OK: A few appreciative comments from friends about one's photography, watercolors or writing work just as well now.
Just a few years ago, when I'd be trying to please a boss, win a prize or getting a whopping raise, such acceptance might have seemed rather lame, even pathetic. Indeed the first 18 months Stew and I spent in San Miguel, when we were both still in our 50s and thus younger that most of the ex-pats we came across, such acceptance seemed tantamount to resignation or defeat. Life was effectively over.
Yet in the past two years, as we went past the 60-year-old mark, the home stretch has become actually enjoyable. What my boss thinks? Fuck it, I don't have one. The resale value of our home? Who cares? We've built a home that's our Life Home--one that exactly suits our needs and comfort demands, not the demands of the real estate market. (Anyway, the real estate market in San Miguel, like in many parts of the U.S., effectively croaked about two years ago, along with expectations of double-digit stock market returns.) Do we have enough vacation to go on a whale-watching trip to Baja California next month? You bet: Life is a daily vacation.
The effect of acceptance has been one of liberation rather than resignation. Buddhists believe that suffering is both inescapable but also inextricably tied to "clinging" or desiring what we don't have. I don't claim to have mastered acceptance much less Buddhist "enlightenment", but I find that the tighter I embrace the concept of "what is, is" the calmer and happier I become.
The hole at the end of the homestretch is still there and it moves closer every day. Might as well get there whistling rather than kicking and screaming.