01/11/2011 04:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Aging and Happiness: A Lesson from Abraham and Sarah

A recent article in the Economist revealed that happiness and age relate to one another like a giant U curve. We are born happy, but then get decidedly unhappier until our low point at age 46. After that, we start creeping up the curve toward more happiness as we age, economists have discovered. Hang in there, stressed out sandwich generation. Apparently, after middle age, it gets better.

This finding runs counter to what many of us would expect. Declining health, less energy and impending death aside, older people have more satisfaction in life than their younger and fitter children expected and perhaps more than they expected themselves. At Duke University, when a group of 30 year olds and 70 year olds were asked who they expected to be happier, they all predicted the younger group would be. But when asked about their own well-being, the 70 year olds came out ahead. And they do so even when you factor in nationality, money, employment and other life circumstances.

This reminds me of the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah, who after a long life without children, suddenly found out they were about to have a child, when they were the age of grandparents. Sarah's reaction, as recorded in the Bible? She laughed.

As a stressed out 44 year old about to plummet into the nadir of my misery in just two short years, I could learn a little something from Sarah's laughter. People my age tend to regard changes in our plans as inconvenient, upsetting or downright offensive. Middle-aged people are working hard toward goals they may have had since their teens and 20s. Some of those may have come to fruition, while others elude us. But we still hold out the hope that we can do it all, as well as the fear that we won't be able to. Which doesn't leave a lot of room for laughter when faced with the unexpected.

But in these days of an uncertain economy and record unemployment, many middle-aged people have been thrown into an unexpected landscape they never predicted, back when they were making those life goals. Interfaith Worker Justice estimates that the real unemployment rate is 17 percent, when you factor in those who have accepted part time work or just stopped looking. Denied the success they expected, many people who expected to be near the top of their game are worse off than they were three years ago. Their image of who they always wanted to be may not match their current reality.

But what is reality? Is it our own self-made image? Or the imago dei, the image of God, in which each one of us has been beautifully created? The imago dei is a gift from our creator to each one of us, no matter what we accomplish.

When Sarah learned that life had thrown her a curve ball, I imagine she had long since torn up her checklist of goals. She had long since given up on having a child, and probably on many other things as well. By now, she knew herself and she knew what life would bring. Or at least she thought she did.

But when it all turned upside down, she laughed. The Joneses she had wanted to keep up with, and the young moms she had once envied, may well have been dead by the time Sarah got her big news. And so, in the joy and irony of it all, she laughed.

Perhaps in the end, our happiness is not ultimately about our accomplishments, our circumstances, our youth or our looks. Real happiness lies in our ability to take ourselves, and our own big plans, a little less seriously. So spiritual maturity and laughter go hand in hand. But did we really have to wait for the economists to tell us that?