People tend to become happier as they age. How can that change our perspective on how we live – and manage our money – today?
Arthur Rubinstein was a world-renowned classical pianist from Poland. The New York Times called him one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. He gave his debut performance in 1894, when he was just seven years old. An extensive, celebrated career followed, spanning a jaw-dropping eight decades.
As could be expected, Rubinstein’s body started to show signs of aging late in his career. It became harder to maintain a heavy travel schedule and play complex pieces from composers such as Chopin, Debussy and Brahms. With no desire to stop playing, however, Rubinstein instead adjusted to his diminishing skills. He started to perform with a more selective list of music, from which he would change up the tempo at certain sections to better conform to his abilities.
By 1976, because of his weakening eyesight, Rubinstein was forced to stop performing, giving his last concert at age 89. But, even then old age couldn’t diminish his lust for life. In fact, at age 93, nearly blind and invalid, he left his wife for another younger woman. “To get to be as old as I am,” Rubinstein said, “one must drink a glass of whiskey every day, smoke a long cigar and chase beautiful girls.”
Rubinstein’s resilience and carefree attitude is an example of how people find joy in growing older.
In a youth-driven culture, there is a pervading cynicism toward growing older. We tend to focus only on the downsides of aging. The stereotypical thought is that you become more miserable and enjoy life less the older you get. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It turns out, you actually become happier with age.
A 2010 study by researchers at Stony Brook University found that Americans age 50 and older were happier overall. Using data from a telephone survey of hundreds of thousands of Americans, their study showed anger steadily declined among people from their 20s through their 70s, with stress plummeting in their 50s.
In a related study, a Stanford psychologist tracked people age 18 to 94 for a decade. As they grew older, they grew happier and became better at keeping their emotions in check.
John Leland, a journalist, came to the same conclusion while spending a year interviewing and interacting with six New York City residents who were ages 85 and older. He documented his experience in the book, Happiness Is a Choice You Make.
Leland writes, “older people are more content, less anxious or fearful, less afraid of death, more likely to see the good side of things and accept the bad, than young adults.”
So, how exactly do older adults find happiness and peace in the face of continuous loss, both physical and social? How can this wisdom prove useful to middle aged and young adults who often dread the notion of growing older? And, can it change the way we think about preparing for retirement?
Be willing to adapt to changes
A decline in mental and physical capabilities is an inevitable part of growing older. Suddenly you can’t run as fast, names start escaping you, etc.
One thing Leland learned about the older adults he spent time with was “They saw themselves as sums not of their disabilities but of their strategies for living with them.”
For older adults, the limitations imposed by aging are not seen as a sign to quit but as a signal to adapt.
You may not be able to play hockey or do gymnastics at age 70, but you can adopt new activities like swimming or cycling that provide the same physical and social benefits.
Older adults often pursue a path that is an extension of what they were doing before (think of a professional athlete who becomes a coach) or try something entirely new.
For example, Anna Mary Robertson Moses, or “Grandma Moses,” is a well-known name in American folk art. Her first passion though was embroidery. She didn’t start painting until age 76, only when her arthritis grew too painful to hold a needle.
Maintain a sense of appreciation and purpose
Happiness late in life also comes from framing your experiences the right way.
Leland saw that older adults approached life differently. A day spent at the doctor’s office for a bad hip was still the gift of another day of being alive. A new complicated device means spending quality time with the grandkids as they teach you how to use it. For them “problems were only problems if you thought about them that way. Otherwise they were life — and yours for the living.”
Because older adults better understand that time is limited, they build the habit of appreciating every moment. They also better understand the importance and joy that comes from having a sense of purpose.
“Researchers have long observed that older people who feel a sense of purpose in their lives tend to live longer, fuller,” Leland states in his book.
Perhaps, Sophia Loren explained it best when she said, “There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”
Focus on what matters and don’t worry about what could happen
Older adults, over time, build a repository of wisdom based on valuable experiences. So, they know what really matters in life and what’s not worth worrying about.
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter,” Mark Twain once said.
Ultimately, less time spent worrying about things that may never come to pass means more time living in the present.
Leland writes: “older people, knowing they face a limited time in front of them, focus their energies on things that give them pleasure in the moment, whereas young people, with long horizons, seek out new experiences or knowledge that may or may not pay off down the line. Young people fret about the things they don’t have and might need later; old people winnow the things they have to the few they most enjoy. Young people kiss frogs hoping they’ll turn into princes. Old people kiss their grandchildren.”
Finding joy today and preparing for tomorrow
Just because older adults are generally happier doesn’t mean they don’t have fears. Their greatest fear about retirement, for example, is running out of money, above loneliness, boredom and declining health, according to a survey by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.
This highlights the importance of saving early and often and having a comprehensive financial plan for the future. These things can help give you peace of mind so that you can focus on things that really matter.
A new perspective on what it means to grow older can also encourage people to live a fuller life and make smarter financial decisions today. When you realize that your twilight years can be a time of joy and none of that joy comes from material objects, you’ll likely be more careful with your money. You won’t waste it on the newest car or latest gadget.
As Leland learned, “The good things in life – happiness, purpose, contentment, companionship, beauty, and love – have been there all along. We don't need to earn them. Good food, friends, art, warmth, worth – these are the things we have already. We just need to choose them as our lives.”