You know it is not all downside getting old. I notice when I have my geriatric jog in the mornings these days I have more time to think than I used to. This, of course, is mainly a factor of my reducing speed which means it takes me longer to get around my jogging route thus allowing me more opportunity for cogitation.
Today whilst jogging I thought about happiness and aging.
Despite the fact that I complain a lot as I age, I must confess I am pretty contented. Studies by the Happiness Institute surprisingly confirm that older people are generally happier than younger people.
But other scholars are trying to subvert these findings. Elisha Tarlow Taylor and colleagues published a paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies entitled “Are the Very Happy, Too Happy?” Following the usual trend in American psychiatry I am waiting to see Excessive Happiness characterised as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) which will prompt drug companies to begin researching depressant drugs to counter the malaise.Having been associated with the work of the research community for the last twenty years or so it does not surprise me to see researchers running off on tangents that interest them but seem of dubious benefit to the population at large!
There is no doubt that those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world enjoy a material welfare our ancestors could hardly dream of. Still, it seems to me that we were meant to be far more social, spiritual, loving and intellectually engaged than we are being programmed to be by modern consumer culture. I suppose one of the problems we encounter in this debate is in fact, understanding what happiness is.
The question that is usually asked to determine the level of happiness in a population is usually something like this:
“Taking all things together, would you say that you are: very happy: quite happy: not very happy: or not at all happy?”
Typically, if you average results over the myriad of populations tested the score is 7.5 out of 10.0.
If we were to ask what is the opposite of happiness most people would agree that depression is a fair approximation. But depression is the grimmest trend in the Western world. Its incidence has increased ten-fold over the last fifty years, prompting the World Health Organisation to predict that by 2020 depression would be the second largest health problem in the world after heart disease.
But the problem is that according to statistics there are more depressed people than unhappy ones! I suppose this might be true if:
• We are over-diagnosing depression (which is likely), or
• We are over-reporting happiness because not to do so is seen as a personal failure by those responding (which is also likely).
But I digress.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus believed that happiness and old age went hand in hand. Epicurus left little direct record of his beliefs. However the Vatican houses a small collection of his sayings. The author and psychologist Daniel Klein quotes these so-called “Vatican Sayings.”
“It is not the young man who should be considered fortunate but the old man who has lived well, because the young man in his prime wanders much by chance, vacillating in his beliefs, while the old man has docked in the harbour having safe-guarded his happiness.”
I suspect age helps us in the quest for happiness in a few ways.
Firstly enough life experience has confirmed to us fulfillment of irrational desires and the pursuit of material rewards has little to do with that attainment of well-being and they have dropped away as a motivating factor.
I can relate to the Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz who said “I can’t afford to waste my time making money.”
The philosopher Eric Hoffer also seemed to have hit the nail on the head with this statement, “You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy!”
Aligned with this is the realisation that our so-called “needs” (which are often really desires, unrealisable ambitions and distracting fantasies) don’t have to be fulfilled to be happy. In fact it seems to me that if all such “needs” were met we would lose our drive and motivation. The traditional concept of “heaven” for this reason to could well be a pretty boring place!
The American playwright, Channing Pollock seemed to have understood this when he wrote, “Happiness is a way station between too little and too much.”
And this is a powerful and necessary realisation because our consumer society has become more adept at creating such fictional needs than we have the capacity to ever meet them.
Daniel Klein, whom I mentioned above writes:
“As a personality trait, materialism has been shown by numerous studies to create obstacles to happiness. Among other things, a strong materialistic orientation has been associated with envy, narcissism, relationship problems, and a diminished ability to feel empathy for others.”
And of course, as I have mentioned in previous essays this is echoed in Buddhist teachings which exhort us to eschew attachment.
Secondly with age comes the realisation that you don’t have to prove anything to anybody. Life is not a competition – in fact the best parts of life are sharing. You don’t expect anything from your friends except good company. You don’t expect anything from your partner except a little shared affection and tolerance which you will happily reciprocate. You don’t expect anything from your children but to see them make their way in the world as best they can. And you become kinder to yourself – you realise that you have shortcomings that you may never resolve; some of your ambitions were beyond you and you now realise you can be content without their attainment. (Sigh – there goes that 35minute ten kilometre run and that best selling novel!)
Thirdly time is not our enemy. We look back in fondness at what we have been fortunate enough to have experienced. We look forward in anticipation of new achievements, new experiences and new insights – but we are not driven to realise them. We can just let life be and rejoice in the fulsomeness of its passage. Sure there are disappointments. We see many of those we are fond of die. Whilst we are sorry to lose them we feel privileged to have known them and shared joy with them.
As I get older it occurs to me that there are at least two mistaken premises people hold about happiness. These premises are somewhat related.
The first is that we are all entitled to happiness.
This is an unfortunate myth and like the sense of entitlement that we feel in other areas of our lives contributes to our general malaise if our undue expectations are not met and we inevitably see ourselves as victims.
George Bernard Shaw, that marvellous Irish playwright, wrote in Candida,
“We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it.”
But today, certainly many citizens in more developed modern societies believe they have that right. And when it is not forthcoming they often turn to drugs to solve their perceived problem. As a result there is a huge industry (most of it illegal) in lifestyle drugs that spawn from the collective belief that people have a right to feel good at all times.
In the Four Noble Truths the Buddha taught that to live means that inevitably there will be suffering. In this imperfect world we will all without exception experience illness and death, disappointments, sickness injury and old age. None of us are exempt from this.
And I suspect that as we age and look objectively at our life-experience this becomes obvious.
The second mistaken premise is that we can directly pursue happiness. (There goes happiness – if I run fast enough I can catch it!)
In my little book “Froth and Goblets” I used this metaphor:
“Happiness,” said Augustus, “Is like a cat. You can coax and cajole it but it will pay you no attention. But if you disregard it, it will soon be rubbing itself against your legs. You can not approach happiness directly. It is a consequence of largely forgetting yourself.”
Let us go back to a familiar theme. The good Dr Phil has always advocated that the way to psychological robustness (which in my mind equates with well-being) is to:
Know Yourself > Accept Yourself > Forget Yourself
This resonates with the findings of the positive psychologists. Martin Seligman proposes that one of the foundations of Happiness is to be devoted to a cause “greater than yourself”.
The Dalai Lama tells us:
“If you want others to be happy, be compassionate.
If you want to be happy, be compassionate.”
The marvellous Matthieu Ricard, French geneticist and Buddhist adept, promotes altruism as not only having benefits for the recipients of the altruism but for the altruists. Again we see well-being enhanced, not by directly pursuing it, but as a result of trying to make the world a better place.
Altruism is progressed by suppressing the ego. This is echoed in the statement of the author Robert Louis Stevenson who said:
“The wisdom of the world consists in making oneself very little.”
I often, in my coaching practice, ask people to relate some of their happier moments. Inevitably they relate times when they were engaged by the world at large and had little concern about themselves. If you ask people about their unhappiest times they relate the opposite. They tell you of instances of depression when they were self-obsessed and could not stop thinking about their misfortunes. Or it was the time when they thought they had cancer and couldn’t get it out of their heads.
There is no doubt in my mind that the good Dr Phil is right and that our well-being is enhanced when we can put aside our concerns about self. Our greatest suffering comes from when we were self-obsessed. Our greatest joy comes from those times we were able to put the ego aside and empathise with others. As we age this is easy to see in retrospect and this realisation should help us guide our conduct in more productive ways.
Let us finish then with a statement from the noble Albert Schweitzer.
“I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”