Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Appreciating the Happiness Factor

There are people who believe that happiness is the province of the young and that old people are sad and lonely. This seems to be another example of those strange and untrue concepts about beings of the older vintages. (ageism: prejudice against and strange stereotypes about old people)

In fact, a spate of recent studies confirms that people actually grow happier as they grow older, and that old people are the happiest adult age group.

I know I'm happier than I've ever been at any other time of my life. I feel much more relaxed and comfortable about being myself. I accept and love myself more than I ever did. I am more emotionally flexible and resilient (and am grateful that I am also physically flexible and resilient, too). I'm much less influenced by what others think. I am more calm and accepting. I appreciate life, people and events more, and at the same time, I feel more detached.

You can read more about the studies of happiness and age in this New York Times blog.

The brain has something to do with it, of course. Now that researchers are finally paying attention to the aging brain they are making some exciting discoveries.

Scientists used to believe that we stopped producing new brain cells during adolescence. But now they've finally discovered that the brain keeps on producing new cells throughout life.

Psychologists used to think that cognitive abilities peaked in early adulthood. Unfortunately, a lot of people still believe this, though research shows that cognitive abilities actually peak in midlife or even later, depending on the person. There are so many examples of people in their 80s and 90s who embody this truth, people who create marvelous and original art, literature, philosophy, psychology and social activism in their later years.

The limbic system, which processes emotional experience, calms down with age. We are less affected by negative emotions and pay more attention to positive emotional experience. That certainly contributes to the happiness factor.

Researchers discovered that older adults use both hemispheres of their brain simultaneously. That's pretty interesting, isn't it? Powerful and holistic.

And let's not forget "dendritic density," the accumulated forest of dendrites from everything you've experienced and learned, all dancing and communing with each other happily.

All that adds up to mean that older people are capable of more complex, nuanced thinking and have great reservoirs of creativity.

If the subject excites you as much as it does me, pick up The Mature Mind by Gene Cohen, M.D., Ph.D. It's an inspiring read, full of fascinating research, interviews and cutting edge insights on aging and creativity.

I'm a fan of Dr. Cohen, who is very brainy, bighearted and also looks a bit like a leprechaun. As the founding chief of the Center on Aging at the National Institute of Mental Health, he interviewed and worked with thousands of older adults over a period of 20 years.

His upbeat perspective is a refreshing antidote to some prevailing attitudes about age. Here's what some authors have to say about The Mature Mind.

"Gene Cohen nails it: The brain can get better with age! With authority and warmth, he demolishes the myth of inevitable mental decline and explores how the brain expands and develops in the later decades of life."
— Abigail Trafford, author of My Time

"Cohen has coined the term 'developmental wisdom' to describe the emotional growth and wisdom that many adults acquire as they age. His book is sensible, useful, and hopeful—he is a developmentally wise man himself."
— Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia

"Gene Cohen teaches us that the rich possibilities of life—including the life of the mind—continue well into the latest of our years."
— Robert N. Butler, M.D., President and CEO, International Longevity Center

Dear readers, there you have it. Even though the culture suffers from an under-appreciation of the positive contributions and qualities of age, older adults are happy. Even though they experience various kinds of losses and limitations, they are happy. There's plenty that all of us can learn from this, I do believe. And plenty to appreciate about the marvelous way that we human beings evolve and grow over time.

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