A big tell in life is how people feel about their birthdays. In recent years I’ve been feeling quite good about mine, shocking as they are in number and perceived frequency. Having had one recently, I realize that what psychologists say is true: We do get happier as we get older.
No one really knows why, but in study after study, older people, even very old people, report greater levels of day-to-day satisfaction. Now, don’t tell me about your cranky old aunt who’s angry at the world. We’re talking generalities here, and in general, people seem to enjoy their days more as those days dwindle down. I suppose you really do start to believe the third act has commenced, and this isn’t a rehearsal. It’s now or never for any fun and frolic. A scale has tipped; there are more years behind you than ahead. I would argue that that’s good motivation.
Another reason for elder-peace is self-acceptance. One hopes that by the fifth or sixth decade and beyond, we reconcile our dreams, the ones we fulfilled and the ones we never will. We know we can’t change the past, but we can trust that we’ve done our best for ourselves and those we love.
Some elder-joy is a choice. We can sit around and complain about our failing vision and hearing, or we can stop dying and start living as best we can. If we can’t run anymore, we can walk, and if we can’t walk, we can get us one of them scooters. If we don’t enjoy loud restaurants, we can still relish a delicious meal in a quiet setting. Mostly, we can discipline ourselves to look at the brighter side of the life we have. Heaven knows it’s so damn unproductive to look at the dark side.
Part of the elder-euphoria comes from accepting the job we’ve done, in the workplace or at home, raising kids or making widgets. In your 30s you may have been looking to make partner, but in your 70s you know it won’t happen, and you’ve been a great lawyer, helped a lot of people, so that’s that. Take a victory lap.
I read yesterday that once the kids are grown (if we have them) and the grandchildren move into their teens, our sense of well-being and happiness increasingly depends on friends and community. Not that family doesn’t always come first in our hearts, but on a day-to-day basis, our laughter and love and activities may depend more on the people we see on a walk or at a club or at a volunteer job. These days, Granny isn’t likely to be living with her grown children, so she better have friends to join her at the happy hour bar.
I know very well that aging happily isn’t a given. But even with infirmities and diminished capacities, older folks, and very old folks, report great satisfaction with their lives. Mostly, they say they don’t worry anymore about what might happen tomorrow. If something bad comes along, they’ll deal with it then. Otherwise, they will have wasted the good days they have worrying about lightning that may never strike. And they don’t care so much what other people think of them. They stop performing for others’ approval and enjoy settling into themselves.
Men seem to grow beards. Many older women decide to stop coloring their hair, go natural and lose the onerous task of touch-ups every few weeks. Hair is a big thing with women. I decided to let mine grow long and wild, one more time. Why? Because it pleases me.
So, yeah, I had a happy birthday, although I do have one tiny kvetch. It’s really a shame you don’t have your own column, because if your children didn’t send you a birthday present, you’d have to stew in silence, eating your heart out and basically regretting the fact that you spent $10,000 per head to straighten their teeth.
I, however, do have this opportunity, and therefore can share with the world that the first person to wish me a happy birthday last week was my 94-year-old mother, who knew me when. I always thank her for having me. I mean, I threw my Mary Janes at this woman in a fit of temper when I was 9; she deserves a little gratitude for the 12 hours of labor she went through.
I admit, it was I who tutored my children on the transitory value of material things, and warm wishes are wonderful, but birthdays are for concrete expressions of caring. Why else did they invent gift wrap? I never misled anyone. I want gifts. Gold is good, dangling from my ears. Therefore, I felt a bit disappointed when my big day came and went and no package appeared from the younger generation. Stiffed. By the very people I diapered and fed.
Thank you, I do feel better now, having vented. Minor quibbles aside, I will roll along, no doubt feeling happier as I go. And really, what’s the choice?
Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.