After two years of looking at economic graphs of precipitous, acute-angle lines in black-to-red free fall, it was reassuring to see the kindlier, rounded u-bend graph in a recent Economist feature, “The Joy of Getting Old.” In data-mining Gross National Happiness surveys worldwide, statisticians hypothesize that after mid-life crises, people actually get happier as they get older.
Since The Economist’s graph looked like some old crusty pipe under the bathroom sink, I suspected the editors were just tossing us geezer-boomers an it-gets-better bone. I almost didn’t read the article. But I couldn’t sleep because of my aching, arthritic shoulder, so I donned my drugstore reading glasses, which made the font comfortably large, and plunged in.
For years, economists have been asking, “Can money buy happiness?” But in a deep recession, that would be kind of awkward, if not downright rude. (Economists should have been asking how Wall Street can get away with grand larceny, but you’ll have to go see Inside Job to find the answer to that one.) Instead, economists asked the even more philosophical question, “What is happiness?”
It turns out that gender, personality, external circumstances, and age are the main hedonic determinants. Women are slightly happier than men. They have to be happier because Ayn Rand wrecked the curve. Neurotics are less happy than extroverts. See John McCain. Relational, educational, and health circumstances affect happiness. Educated people are happier, especially after they pay off their student loans. People aged seventy rate themselves happier than thirty year olds.
After much study, psychologists came to the conclusion that increased contentment in older people might actually result not from external variables but from internal changes. An inside job. One Stanford professor of psychology thinks that since older people see their age cohorts die and confront evidence of their own mortality, they are better able to live in the present and manage their emotions.
The article concludes with the near-George-Bushian tautology: Happiness makes people happier. It also makes people healthier, though you couldn’t prove that by me in my third week of sinusitis. Happiness makes people more productive. In one study, participants who had seen a funny film before doing a task performed 12 percent better than those who had not. This is a good thing as retirement age is raised to eighty-three.
All this is happy news for me as I start up my 2011 National Glee Party Tour. So far, I am not a fan of this new century. The first decade, still without a tagline, witnessed a stolen election, a terrorist attack, two wars, a desperate church, a collapsing economy, a historic election, seditious gridlock, teabaggery, and disheartening presidential diffidence.
Yet I would situate the decade on the upward tine of our national u-bend. After all, Native American genocide was not an auspicious beginning, and the Civil War was our adolescence. World Wars I and II, the Depression and various gates were not good times had by any; they were our mid-life crises. But now, we ought to be over the hump.
Perhaps it’s my age. Perhaps it’s magical thinking—not on the scale of “If Bristol wins Dancing with the Stars, Sarah will win the Presidency”—but as I approach my mid-sixties, I have decided to act as if.
As we enter this teen decade, join the Glee Party. All are welcome in the pursuit of happiness. Of course, problems will not be solved in an hour, but we will wear our own patriot drag: peace buttons, union label T-shirts, and many crazy hats. Our rallies will feature flash-mobs breaking into song and dance for no apparent reason. We want to take our country up.