How Young People Can Be Happier: Lessons from Old People

A secret of happiness lies in how long people say they want to live.

Most Americans say they would like to live to 80 or 90. Few are tempted by the possibility of taking a pill that would slow down aging and allow you to live to 110 or even 150.

Why do so many people say that they would not want to live beyond age 80 or 90? If pressed, they may explain that they do not want to become frail, wrinkly, cantankerous, and depressed. But the real reason that most people report numbers from 80 to 90 is that this is the current life expectancy! Americans can now expect to live to about age 80 from birth. But once you have passed the high-risk years of infancy, childhood, and adolescence, your life expectancy jumps. Many healthy middle-aged adults can indeed expect to live to their late 80s or early 90s. But almost no one reaches 110.

So, most of what we say about desired life expectancy is rationalization, not logical deduction. Healthy adults generally live into their 80s, so we say that would like to live into our 80s. Descriptive becomes prescriptive. Often, individuals go even further and insist that we should not live to 110 or 150 because of moral reasons—threats to earth’s resources or to the younger generation, and so on.  Descriptive becomes prescriptive becomes ethics. But note that the same argument could be made to suggest that we should not prolong life beyond age 55. I myself think it is a good thing that fewer people are now dying from heart attacks in their 50s. Or in their 60s and 70s.

If you ask an older person who has good social and family ties, has remained physically active (little TV watching), and has meaningful work and community involvement (whether paid or volunteer), you will get a different answer about longevity. Most such 80-year-olds will not tell you that people should not live beyond 80. They are likely to be happy and looking forward to each day. In fact, happiness generally increases with age, especially if these core conditions are in place.

In my work on the Longevity Project, we have been studying over 1500 bright Americans who were first examined as children in the 1920s. They were followed for their whole lives, and we have evaluated how well they aged and how long they lived. We ask: who lives long, healthy, and thriving lives, and why? We then confirm the results by examining other studies. When I recently talked to our study participant who is now 102, he was very happy. Yes he stays active, yes he stays busy with important work, and yes he is happily married and socially involved.

In the near future, many, many individuals will live in good health to age 100. Not the people who are focused on self-fulfillment, and not the people who eat too much or sit too much, or take silly risks;  but the people who, as The Longevity Project revealed, are on healthy pathways in which one good step naturally leads to another. They are conscientious, persevering, socially engaged, physically active, and highly productive at work or in their communities. I predict that these many centenarians will also be very happy.

What does this have to do with the happiness of young people? Many young people are pursuing happiness without recognizing that they would be better off pursuing instead the core elements of a meaningful life. That would help bring the health and happiness that is so desired! We need not await the development of life-extension drugs (or better anti-depressants) although they are certainly coming. Instead, we can look to the huge volume of accumulated scientific evidence showing that the greatly increased odds for a healthy, happy life come from diligence, education, organization, being physically active in daily life, being productive at work, and staying heavily involved with family, friends, and community. Happiness is a result, not a cause. In a society in which most individuals live this way—in a more involved, caring, and creative manner—I expect most to be perfectly satisfied with an increase in life expectancy. Even to 110.

If you are interested, The Longevity Project was published in paperback edition by Plume (see http://www.howardsfriedman.com/longevityproject/ ) and is also available on Kindle and Nook. The book also contains self-assessment quizzes to help you figure your current trajectory.

Photo of Methuselah by Robert Scarth (Flickr: Methuselah) , via Wikimedia Commons