Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

The Pursuit of Happiness: New Studies Reveal That Satisfaction Surges after the Age of 50

Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

The Pursuit of Happiness: New Studies Reveal That Satisfaction Surges after the Age of 50

Article excerpt

For Hope Ferguson, life keeps getting better. When the 53-year-old communications specialist looks back on her younger self, she sees that she used to approach life as a series of tasks and items to be checked off on a running and rather pedestrian to-do list. Her ambitions were conventional, led by a desire to marry and have children. That didn't happen the way she hoped. She married at 43, but the relationship lasted just five months. It was a low point of a life that for a long time had, as she puts it, kind of moseyed along.

As Hope entered her 50s, though, something clicked in her, and she felt somehow replenished.

"When I was young," she says, speaking by phone from her office at a small college in upstate New York, "I used to drive like an old lady. I drive faster now. I don't worry so much about what other people think. I speak my mind. I don't know if it was anything in particular. It was just a gradual awakening after I turned 50."

She compares her age to her favorite season, autumn. "It's when the trees are full of color and have their most extreme beauty, just before winter," she says. "That's the same season for being in your 50s."

Two years ago, Hope got engaged. But she doesn't attribute happiness to late love. Rather, she attributes late love to happiness. In a sense, time wedged an opening--like a stream of water cracking open a big boulder--that made it possible for someone to come into her life.

Hope's growing happiness may be more the rule than an exception, with a number of recent reports suggesting that just when people start needing glasses to read a restaurant menu, life begins to come into clearer focus.

Most recently there was the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, a survey of 1.2 million Americans between 18 and 85, as well as a separate Gallup poll of 340,000. Both surveys produced similar findings--that people's sense of well-being follows a U-shaped trend, starting high in youth, dipping in one's 30s and 40s, hitting a low point at 50, then beginning to gather momentum.

"We don't know why well-being seems to rise with age," says Nikki Duggan, Healthways' director of operations and analytics. "Though one trend we see is that over time people feel more respected."

Other factors, say experts, may be that over time people become more realistic about their expectations, more accepting about what they have or haven't achieved, and more resilient when things don't pan out. For many, there's a growing appreciation of life that may be missing in the years of striving and stress typical of one's 30s and 40s.

The topic of happiness has blossomed into an industry--from the positive psychology movement to new ways of approaching mental health treatment to happiness skill-building to a book-publishing niche that has almost become its own genre. There are international conferences that look at what happiness means to business and to national and global economics; the south Asian kingdom of Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness Index; Britain recently started a project to measure the national GWB, or general well-being, and this year, Australia hosted the 5th annual World Happiness Forum.

Happiness is particularly relevant in the U.S., which was, after all, the first country to make the happiness of its citizens part of its core mission, starting with the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson substituted what must have seemed an ethereal notion, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," for a more common phrase of the time, "life, liberty and property." The ideal of happiness was truly radical at a time when humans were generally presumed to be subjects whose sole purpose was to serve the state and its rulers.

The topic is no less important now than it was then, but the recent efforts to compare the relative happiness of the different ages is more relevant than ever: It is projected that life expectancy in the U. …

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