09/02/2012 09:08 am ET

Getting Better With Age: Why Seniors Are More Satisfied

By Rachel Pomerance

The perks of growing old, and how to feel better now

What if you knew that everything was going to be OK? That life would work out just fine, maybe even infinitely better than that.

A friend of mine once posed that question during a summer road trip up the California coastline. Looking at the expanse of road and time ahead, we talked endlessly of our futures -- who we might meet and marry and the contours of our careers. So the notion to release worry about what might be came as a revelation we could hardly fathom, let alone put into practice.

And that snapshot is precisely the portrait of youth, and its attendant tragedy. Amid the wonder of so much possibility comes the anxiety of the unknown. And so, as we get older, and the dust settles around the choices we've made and the dreams that were and weren't realized, we relax. The restlessness of youth gives way to contentedness in older age.

A study released this month by the National Council on Aging (NCOA), United Healthcare, and USA Today, found optimism among baby boomers and seniors, who felt the best years of their lives were still before them. The report adds to established research showing a profound correlation between advanced age and emotional well-being.

"People put things into perspective," says Richard Birkel, who leads NCOA's Center for Healthy Aging. The challenges that occupy so much of life -- careers and relationships, for example -- become either moot or manageable among seniors, he says, noting that 90 percent of survey respondents reported confidence in their ability to handle stress. Then again, that generation interviewed had endured the Great Depression and World War II. "If you got through those two events in tact, I would have some confidence too that I was able to adjust to pretty much anything," Birkel says.

Bottom line: The drama of youth subsides with age. Just think about your first love. You likely felt wild highs and crushing lows on experiencing such intense emotions, without having developed the coping skills or perspective to handle them. That may explain why most people say they'd never want to return to the roller-coaster ride of their youth. In fact, surveys have found that when asked about their ideal age, people in their 80s say they'd like to be just 10 years younger, says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity.

It's what's known as "the paradox of aging," Carstensen says. "There's a lot of tough things that come with aging, and people still report that they're doing fine." What's happening is a shift in outlook. Despite, and perhaps because of, the trials of losing loved ones and physical duress, older people focus on the bright side of life. Aging produces a "linear decrease" in negative emotions, like anger and stress alongside an emergence of appreciation for life, she says, "so people are better off emotionally -- there's no question there."

Researchers have mapped happiness according to a "U-shaped" curve over the course of one's life. People's sense of well-being drops in mid-life, and climbs after about age 50, according to several, wide-ranging studies, which ascribe mid-life malaise to the demands of children and aging parents along with the realization of ambitions unmet.

However, the goals that emerge later in life tend to involve emotional satisfaction and, therefore, help bring it about, says Carstensen, explaining that where we put our attention dictates what we see and don't see. Or to quote Oprah, "What we dwell on is who we become." For older people, who tend to focus on savoring precious moments, "that's why they're looking at the sunset," or into their grandchildren's eyes, Carstensen says. Younger people, on the other hand, often need to focus on the future instead of the present, studying organic chemistry, for example, to become a doctor, or slogging through a singles event in the hopes of meeting a mate, she explains.

But do we have to wait until our golden years to attain the wisdom for well-being? Nope.

Most people can benefit from a number of tactics to boost their satisfaction in life. Research has shown that performing positive acts such as writing letters of gratitude, counting one's blessings, performing acts of kindness, and meditating produce positive emotions, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California -- Riverside and author of "The How of Happiness." She also suggests using variety to extend one's satisfaction with a practice, event, or even an object as we continually adapt to the various upgrades in our lives. So if you decide, for example, to make a positive change such as walking to work, then it's best to take different routes over time to sustain your satisfaction, she explains.

Carstensen suggests trying to live in the moment. When faced with life's daily hassles, find perspective by asking yourself this ultimate question, she says: "Is this going to matter on the last day of your life?"

And meanwhile, know that, while every stage of life has its ups and downs, there is plenty to look forward to as we grow old. "There's something about being at an age where you know what you've been dealt in life--and it's OK--and you've found your love, and you've not only found your love, but you have your children and grandchildren," Carstensen says. And this brew of satisfaction is "richer and deeper and more complex than the emotions that a 12-year-old or a 20-year-old can ever imagine."

"The paradox of aging is that realizing you don't have all the time left in the world doesn't make you sad and miserable; it makes you live in the moment and be appreciative of the day," Carstensen says. "That's the secret to happiness," she adds, especially as we age.

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