Our sense of time changes depending on where we are in life. To children playing in the summer sun, three months seems like an eternity; play dates, no school, and no responsibilities. Adults can look at the calendar in May, blink, check back in September, and realize they missed the summer. Our adult days are filled with checklists, bills, and responsibility, and yet, as our age increases, so too does our overall level of happiness.
As we age, time appears to speed up, we’re more prone to illness, we have trouble getting around, people we care for die… the list of morbidity goes on, making getting older and happier sound counterintuitive. However, studies conclude that some people become happier with age.
Research proves that over time, individuals report greater positive experiences than they did in their younger years, perceiving fewer negative emotions and just as many positive emotions as they did in their past. Thus, in comparison, life experience feels better. When scientists found that emotion can improve over age, it was referred to as the “paradox of aging.”
In truth, if a paradox exists, it’s that recognizing our mortality changes our perspective on life in positive ways. Stanford Psychologist Laura Carstensen explains this point, noting, “When our time horizons are long and nebulous as they often are in youth, people are constantly preparing for their future. As we age, time horizons grow shorter and our goals change. When we recognize we don’t have all the time in the world, we see our priorities more clearly. We take less notice of trivial matters and we savor life. We’re more appreciative, more open to reconciliation, we invest in more emotionally important parts of life, and life gets better.”
Essentially, the older we get, the closer we are to death. The closer to death, the more we value our time. The more we value time, the happier we are. So when death isn’t literally knocking on your door today, but steadily approaching, it helps us focus on the people and aspects of life which matter most.
Indeed, the silver lining of aging is that we’re relieved of the burden of the future, which is the root of many concerns. When navigating life, we know where we are and where we’re headed, thus diminishing stress levels and increasing happiness.
So how will I, the “quarter centenarian,” apply these findings to my life? One way is by considering the research in reverse. If we know that in our youth, we’re less happy because we’re still figuring out our future, then why not be mindful of this, live each day to the fullest (even during times of looking ahead), work on putting more value on our time and close relationships, and simply enjoy the ride?
I don’t want to look back when I’m 100-years-old and regret not thoroughly enjoying the process of getting there. We’re given the gift of life once; why not take it all in every chance we get, like children soaking in, the summer sun, or better yet, a senior living in the “now.”
Adam Chester lives in Los Angeles with his wife Kelly and is in graduate school working towards his Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org