The Pursuit of Happiness

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 put 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.S. will rise to 79.5 years by 2020. According to the 2010 census, 40.3 million Americans, 13 percent of the population, are 65 or older. That number is expected to reach 72 million by 2030 and more than double to 89 million, 20 percent of the population, by 2050.

To be sure, happiness is an elusive topic, a vague term for something we seek without necessarily having a definite idea of what it is we’re after.

llustrations by Koren Shadmi.

“There’s a lot of confusion between happiness and pleasure,” says Matthieu Ricard, author of Why Meditate? Working With Thoughts and Emotions and the French translator for the Dalai Lama. “Happiness is about well-being, a sense of fulfillment. That’s different from how happiness is promoted—it’s all about do this or use that and you’ll find happiness. That is more of a recipe for exhaustion than flourishing. It has to be more a way of being than a momentary pleasant stage. In that sense, pleasure can contribute to happiness, but it can also undermine it, if, for example, it becomes a destructive obsession.”

Many experts prefer the term “well-being” because it describes an overall condition rather than a fleeting feeling of pleasure. Martin Seligman, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist whom many regard as the father of positive psychology, called his latest book Flourish, and introduced an acronym, PERMA, to describe the elements of well-being: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment.

The recent studies suggest that as people age they get better at all of the above. Reported in a series of graphs, Gallup-Healthways’ survey showed that as the years go by Americans are more satisfied and feel more respected at work. They smoke less and eat a healthier diet. Older Americans worry less and are less sad and depressed than people in other age groups, and that trend rises into their 60s despite less robust physical health.

“As you age, you realize that you can be happy in the present,” says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage. “You don’t have to wait until you achieve something more. It’s something you cultivate in the present by connecting to social support networks and paying attention to what’s happening in your life right now.”

Another factor may be the ability to bounce back from adversity or just to keep things in perspective.

“My sense is that unless people change their attitudes and behavior, they remain with the optimal levels of happiness they have,” Achor says. “But what they do gain over time is resilience. They can experience stress and failure and find they’re able to overcome.”

The flip side of the age issue is that unhappiness—a deep, fundamental sense that life has gone off the rails—is occurring at younger ages, with depression occurring earlier than in the past. The mean onset of depression diagnoses in the 1970s was 29. In 2006, it was 14.5. Achor blames technology for this phenomenon. He describes what has happened to modern citizens as a “connection paradox” caused by the urgency to be always linked up and wired in. You can’t be happy if you’re compulsively trying to connect because of a feeling—or fear—of being disconnected or disengaged.

“People are doing too many things,” Achor says. “They’re stressed, running after everything possible. Their brains, even in down moments, are not down. They’re connected to virtual worlds and multitasking. But what we know from research is that the more personal projects a person has on their plate, the more their brain’s resources are spread out, and they don’t get to enjoy them. The more multi-tasking we do, the less happy we are.”

Focus and self-discipline improve with age, and there may be some advantage for people who didn’t grow up mesmerized and conditioned by omnipresent flashing screens, say the experts.

Age, especially for people who have enjoyed a moderate level of success, may also ease the disappointment of youthful high hopes of fame and fortune.

For Roger Stewart, now retired, contentment came from accepting that what he had achieved in his career—a highly rewarding post as an executive editor at a big-city newspaper—was more than adequate professionally, even though he’d started in journalism with the goal of becoming well-known on a national scale.

“When I was in my 30s, I remember listening to an older man I looked up to who was a professor of philosophy, saying, ‘Hey, there are certain stars in the world of philosophy, and I know now I’m never going to be one of them, but I’m comfortable with who I am,’” Roger recalls. “I remember feeling shocked by that. How could he accept being anything but number one? Today, I get it. Making it to the so-called ‘top of your profession’ is not the key to happiness.”

“As you get older, your outlook certainly does change,” says Hope Ferguson, the communications specialist. A number of factors come into play, and one of the biggest is the inescapable experience of living through enough triumphs and setbacks to put things in perspective. “You see the passage of time. You’ve lost people. You see that life has an end, and that makes you want to seize the moment.”

None other than Aristotle asserted that happiness is the goal of goals. But, in researching The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study, Howard S. Friedman, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, came to the conclusion that perhaps happiness ought not to be a goal at all.

Friedman wasn’t even looking at happiness per se. Rather he was analyzing factors that influence longevity. What he found was that “certain behaviors that resulted in happiness also added to people’s longevity.”

In other words, there’s a correlation between happiness and health, and therefore lifespan. But what’s unique about Friedman’s discovery is that “happiness was really just a byproduct of certain habits” rather than an end in itself. For this reason, Friedman doesn’t believe in the happiness skill-building exercises advocated by many positive psychologists because those habits are not sustainable over time and, more important, because they are less vital than the basic healthy habits that we all know are good for us.

“The pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of doing meaningful things,” Friedman says. “Happy people have certain behaviors. They’re active, they’re socially engaged, they have good relationships and are involved in their communities. They’re absorbed by their work and careers. If they want to do something, they don’t worry that it’s going to take too much effort or be too stressful. They’re persistent. They’re not impulsive. They don’t drink too much. They’re not attracted by destructive relationships. They’re not vain or self-centered. What we found is that happiness is what you get when you live a thriving life.”

Out of Friedman’s research comes a word of warning to those who are happy now, and a word of encouragement to those who are still reaching for it: People who have good habits can lose them and people who don’t can get them.

Even though happiness may naturally rise in one’s 50s—a reward for a life well lived—each of us has to keep earning that reward at every age.