Is there a connection between old age and unhappiness? This question is quite fascinating, and the answer isn’t straightforward. Social gerontologists like us assert that there’s no need for seniors to be unhappy and lonely in their later years if they plan ahead to remain socially engaged. Contrary to the societal myth that elders are universally grumpy and inflexible, research from the Office for National Statistics, UK (ONS), suggests that seniors tend to be happier, rather than more miserable, than younger individuals. Delving deeper into ONS data reveals an even more intriguing pattern.

  • Roshan J Mundapallil, Sowmya Lakshmi

In the early stages of life and between the ages of 40 to 50, individuals tend to experience decreasing levels of happiness due to various challenges. As adults enter middle age, they often shoulder additional job and family responsibilities, leading to heightened stress caused by job insecurity, career uncertainties, childcare duties, and obligations towards aging parents. Balancing these demanding roles can be overwhelming, and at times, financial earnings may not suffice to meet their needs. However, this trend reverses in later years, with average happiness steadily increasing until around the age of 70 when it levels off.

The survey cited earlier compiles averages from individuals with diverse health conditions, making it inappropriate to assume that everyone fits the ‘average’ mold. Longitudinal studies on the happiness of elderly individuals have not been feasible, and research has not definitively established a direct causal relationship between age and happiness. While age does play a role in shaping positive or negative emotions, mere chronological years cannot be solely responsible for unhappiness. Therefore, it is crucial to explore other potential causative factors, such as financial status and health, which may vary with age.

The factors mentioned above, in conjunction with various elements of an individual’s ‘environment,’ might obscure happiness during middle age. However, overall, the happiness quotient tends to increase steadily after this period. This newfound happiness stems from transitioning into different life stages, where demands on time and finances, uncertainties, and other negative aspects diminish. As children mature, careers and other activities stabilise, and obligations to dependent relatives lessen, people’s average happiness tends to rise.

As experts in social gerontology, we view this matter differently. Unhappiness, we believe, is a result of one’s own choices, and there’s no one else to hold accountable for it. Emotions aren’t solely dictated by external events but also by how you react to your circumstances. Maintaining social connections is undoubtedly one of the most crucial steps seniors can take, and it holds immense significance for various reasons.

When Pradeep Simha passed away at the age of 93 in our care home, his relatives were quick to note how remarkably cheerful he remained until the very end. He continued playing golf well into his 80s, traveled extensively with his fellow Rotarians, and consistently made new friends. Even at 86, he was still on the golf course. Simhaji’s niece shared that he made a conscious choice to be happy, regardless of his circumstances. She recalls his words, “You need to blossom where you are planted,” reflecting his perspective as an avid rose planter who cultivated various rose varieties. Simha spent his productive years working as an architect in L.A., but he embraced his move back to India later in life.

Simhaji’s positive outlook defies common stereotypes associated with the elderly, which often portray them as cranky or bad-tempered individuals. As social gerontologists actively observing and studying longevity and aging, we have found that his story mirrors a widespread trend. Numerous elderly individuals we have encountered, coupled with studies conducted in developed countries globally, indicate a prevalence of positive feelings among seniors. By this measure, it becomes evident that most seniors tend to be happier than their younger counterparts.

The sense of contentment observed in individuals like Simhaji, even in the very old age category, is a testament to the happiness that can be found in old age. Drawing from our experience as social gerontologists spanning over 22 years, we can affirm that old age can indeed be a joyful period, but certain conditions apply. Happiness in later years is fundamentally a choice made by older individuals each day. Those with healthy minds and bodies employ powerful strategies to minimize negative experiences, emphasizing the importance of accentuating the positive aspects of life. For instance, Simhaji had his own rituals, enjoying a large peg of whiskey before lunch and wine in the evening, a routine he maintained until just a week before his passing. TV and movies have long portrayed older characters as grumpy and unhappy. But the reality is often very different.

We recently viewed a TED talk presented by Laura Carstensen from the Stanford Center on Longevity. In her talk, she highlighted a substantial body of research supporting the notion that people tend to become happier as they grow older. This increase in happiness is attributed in part to emotional wisdom.

Extensive research supports the notion that people experience increased happiness as they age, a phenomenon associated with emotional wisdom, as explained by Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. According to her, as individuals grow older, their time horizons shorten, leading to shifts in priorities and goals. With a heightened awareness of life’s finite nature, trivial matters become less significant. This newfound perspective encourages a deeper appreciation for life, fostering openness to reconciliation and investment in emotionally meaningful experiences. As a result, daily life becomes more fulfilling, contributing to overall happiness.

In the later stages of life, friendships hold greater significance than family bonds, contributing significantly to one’s happiness as they age. Positive relationships play a vital role in this aspect. When seeking friendships, it’s crucial to assess how you feel in their presence. Do they uplift or exhaust you? Do you eagerly anticipate your time together, or do you approach it with reluctance? Prioritize spending your time with those who bring positivity and joy into your life.

Having a diverse circle of friends is ideal. We recommend having friends of various ages - some older, some younger, and some your own age. Sharing memories and music with peers can be delightful, yet there’s also immense joy in learning from older friends and experiencing new things with younger companions.

Pilla Uncle, a tall and stout figure with a robust physique, which gives him an imposing presence, easily stands out in any crowd, thanks to his distinctive moustache. Despite his age, 86 years, he carries a walking stick but still enjoys leisurely evening strolls, a delightful sight to behold.

The walking stick he carried was merely a status symbol, unrelated to any mobility challenges. Despite owning a car and having a driver, he preferred walking to the Indira Nagar Club. Following the loss of his wife to CKD, he had been a widower for over two decades. The club became his sanctuary, where he sought solace. From early evenings to late nights, he immersed himself in playing rummy. Uncle was deeply respected and cherished by his diverse group of friends, spanning various ages and backgrounds, forming his cherished ‘Bouquet’ of friendships.

Building friendships across generations demands extra effort and understanding, but the benefits are significant. Below, we elaborate on why nurturing such relationships is invaluable.

Elderly individuals possess valuable life experience and are less concerned about others’ opinions, allowing them to express their thoughts freely. Their perspective often adds unexpected insights. Babu Thomas, a young construction contractor, was part of Pillai Uncle’s inner circle, creating a mutually beneficial relationship. Babu, who is half the age of Pillai Uncle relied on Pillai Uncle’s wealth of experience and sought his opinions, while Pillai Uncle valued Babu’s companionship. It was a harmonious friendship benefiting both parties.

He was good at maintaining relationships. Pillai uncle’s sons residing abroad, he lived alone and the neighbors kept a watchful eye on him. Despite his solitude, he remained friendly and approachable to his neighbors. Opting not to hire a cook, he prepared his meals personally, generously sharing his culinary creations with the neighbors. This not only showcased his cooking expertise but also wants to foster camaraderie in the neighbourhood. A perfect example of how you overcome loneliness and depression. And here, there is an ‘extra effort’.

Experienced older friends have tackled challenges that younger adults might find daunting, such as navigating workplace issues, coping with breakups, or advocating for their children’s education. Conversely, younger individuals often excel in technology and are well-versed in youth-driven popular culture. Interacting with people from different age groups offers numerous advantages, as we suggest. Younger individuals can gain valuable insights, such as life, career, or financial advice, while older individuals learn about the evolving world order and values, gaining a deeper understanding of a different perspective.

In the later stages of life, having companionship is a powerful indicator of longevity. Countless studies affirm that maintaining a circle of friends is closely tied to leading a longer, healthier, and happier life in old age. While friends of any age can provide support, younger companions are especially valuable as they tend to be more active and in good health, uplifting their older counterparts.

Looking at Pillai uncle’s life, he reshaped his world to make it more pleasant by overlooking his widowhood and solitude by engaging profusely with the community around. He focused on interpersonal relationships, and enjoyed his life till end. While it’s uncertain whether people consciously opt for optimism, maintaining a positive outlook amidst adversity undoubtedly demands effort. During her school days, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she replied, “I want to become a seamstress.” She surprised everyone by her answer when most of her classmates want to become engineers, teachers, doctors, lawyers and civil servants. An unconventional answer, but that was her passion. Sewing had been her hobby since childhood, and now, after retirement, she is wholeheartedly dedicated to it. Annie Aunty retired from the Geology department nearly three decades ago. Since her retirement, she picked up stitching as a hobby. Now, at the age of 87, she still enjoys pursuing her craft. She generously offered her services to all her neighbors and church members, emphasizing that she stitches for them for free, regardless of the number of clothes they bring. She dedicates her time to two senior care homes, sharing her exceptional sewing skills and expertise. Annie Aunty attends to all their sewing requirements. She’s is not interested to make money but to stay engaged and connected with her community.

Engaging in hobbies has a knack for enhancing your life, work, and connections. They provide fresh topics of conversation and add intrigue to your persona. Hobbies can be as distinctive as your personality. Pillai Uncle’s culinary mastery and Annie Aunty’s sewing talents earned them popularity within their community.

There is evidence indicating that enjoyable activities contribute to overall well-being. A study revealed that individuals participating in hobbies experience improved moods, heightened interest, reduced stress, and lower heart rates—even hours after engaging in recreational activities. Pursuing a hobby can enhance problem-solving skills and may lead to unexpected talents, potentially sparking a new career path. When asked about their leisure activities, many old people often find themselves at a loss for words. While it’s easy to describe one’s previous work, articulating hobbies and sources of enjoyment can be challenging. Unfortunately, this difficulty in sharing personal interests is widespread among adults because many of them drew blank. Many older individuals have withdrawn into solitude, and although we recognize the need to connect through shared hobbies, these interactions are becoming less frequent. Finding a common interest, such as a hobby, can bridge the gap and foster meaningful connections.

An increasing amount of research suggests that cultivating hobbies is a crucial aspect of healthy aging. According to the National Institute on Aging, seniors who engage in hobbies and other leisure activities are at a reduced risk of developing specific diseases, tend to live longer, experience greater happiness, and have lower rates of depression.

Numerous individuals express regret over poor financial choices made during their younger years. Those who thought ahead and saved up are better equipped to sustain a comfortable lifestyle. A parallel concept applies to “happiness.” It’s crucial to invest wisely in social and personal activities from an early age. Just as financial advisors recommend specific strategies, investing your time in enriching experiences can significantly enhance your life. By embracing various meaningful activities, you can ensure a much happier twilight zone.

We have seen many elderly people socially active even at the ‘very old’ ages. Both Pillai Uncle and Annie aunty are the best example for this. The moment you start socialising, your personality changes to more accommodating, cheerful, affable, and friendly. These qualities will certainly make you more ‘popular’ in your community. When the involvement with the community increases, you have no room for unhappiness or depression. The same can be said about the hobbies. Good social life and pursuing a hobby can be of great help to many elders in achieving their full potential thereby a positive outlook to life itself.

Here are some tips that helps you bring cheerfulness and contentment to your life.

1. Get involved with a charity and give back to society
2. Join a social club, like Rotary Club
3. Be a part of a special interest group like Antakshari, music or biking
4. Involved with the church or temple activities to nurture spirituality
5. Indulge in hobbies that excite you
6. Join a gym or engage in physical activities like tennis, shuttle or golfing
7. Start gardening
8. Try getting a pet
9. If healthy, start travelling and explore
10. Do not stay always with people of your age, have a variety of people around you young and old

As people get older, they tend to fall into two categories: those who become significantly happier, and those who become considerably less content. We meet elders who complain life has no charm and they hate monotonous existence. As features and events in your life become increasingly familiar they tend to generate less intense emotions, perhaps contributing to a gradual decrease in happiness with increasing age. However, as social gerontologists, we challenge this notion. We firmly believe that old age can be the most fulfilling phase of life if approached with intelligence and spent wisely.