Old Age, happiness, and virtue

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When you hear the words “old age,” what comes to mind? In cultures gone by, it meant wisdom, sage, elder, respect. But today in our youth-obsessed culture, we tend to think of “decline,” “frailty,” “sickness,” and “death.” Many believe that the hobbit Bilbo had old age pegged when he said in The Lord of the Rings, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

And recently Ezekiel Emanuel, one of the architects of Obamacare, said in The Atlantic that he wanted to die at age 75. Living too long, he thinks, “renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining . . . It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world . . .  We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.”

This sort of thinking has not only made a lucrative industry out of anti-aging products, but it’s driving the whole so-called “death with dignity” movement.

Of course, there’s no denying that old age is a stage of life—the last stage, in fact—and it comes with a whole host of unpleasant things: the loss of mobility, loved ones, and so on.

But according to a growing body of research, if folks like Emanuel gets their wish, our culture will be robbed of some of the happiest years of our lives. Researcher Jonathan Rauch and others have noted the persistence of what they call “the U-Curve.” In the U.S. and in scores of countries, young adults tend to rate themselves as very happy, but the older they get, up to age 50, the less happy they become.

This may be due to the accumulation of life stress, the mismatch of early dreams with reality, and so on. But as people begin the journey into older age, reported happiness actually begins to increase again. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago has found that nearly 40 percent of Americans aged 65 and older described themselves as “very happy,” compared with just 33 percent of those between 35 and 49.

New York Times columnist David Brooks says that many psychologists attribute this boost in well-being to natural changes in the brain. And while there may be some truth to this, I agree with Brooks’ opinion, “that elder happiness is an accomplishment, not a condition, that people get better at living through effort, by mastering specific skills.”

The first life skill he notes is bifocalism, the ability to see a situation from multiple perspectives. That only comes with experience. Next is lightness, the ability to be at ease with the downsides of life. Again, the accumulation of years can help us not take ourselves so seriously. And then there’s the acquired wisdom of responding to competing demands. Finally, Brooks notes that older people often have an intuitive grasp of what other people are thinking, leading to greater empathy. All these benefits can come with advancing years, leading to increased happiness and contentment.

Of course, Chuck Colson often pointed out that happiness is not the mere pursuit of good experiences or feelings, but the classically understood “good life”, or the deliberate acquisition of virtue, which these research findings corroborate. Wisdom, ultimately, comes from the Lord. As the psalmist said, “What man is there who desires life / and loves many days, that he may see good? / Keep your tongue from evil / and your lips from speaking deceit. / Turn away from evil and do good; / seek peace and pursue it.”

Virtue is the mark of a life well lived, and it takes a lifetime to cultivate. Christians, whatever our age, are to seek the wisdom that only God can provide.

John Stonestreet

— John Stonestreet

ohn Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center and is heard on Breakpoint, a radio commentary. Copyright© 2014 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.

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