Want To Be Happy? Live Like a Woman Over 50
"Happiness depends on how we deal with what we are given."
Our culture presents us with a misogynistic version of who we older women are. We confront both ageism and gender-specific challenges. As we age, our bodies, our sexuality, and our minds are devalued. There are many negative stereotypes about older women, but my least favorites manifest as mother-in-law jokes. These jokes suggest we are nosy, bossy, judgmental, and in the way. My new book Women Rowing North begins a new conversation about our complexity, challenges, and gifts.
Contrary to cultural stereotypes, many older women are deeply happy. A 2014 Brookings Institute study on happiness and age found that people are least happy in their twenties, thirties, and early forties, and steadily gain an appreciation for life as they age. Indeed, most women become increasingly happy after age 55, with their peak of happiness toward the very end of life.
Dilip Jeste at the University of California, San Diego, found in 2016 that as people age they report higher levels of overall satisfaction, happiness, and well-being, and lower levels of anxiety, depression, and stress. The older the person, the better her mental health tended to be. Women’s happiness ratings were consistently higher than those of men. Recent census data from the United Kingdom finds that the happiest people are women aged 65 to 79.
There are many theories about why women fare better than men. One is simply that we tend to be healthier and more active. We also are more likely to have close relationships with family and friends. We understand how to hold intimate conversations, talk about our own deepest emotions, and help others discuss theirs. We may have a long-term partner and often have decades-old friendships to support us.
This year I experienced a vivid illustration of the happiness of older women. I switched recreational centers from the university where I have taught for many years to a gym geared toward older people. I noticed a great change in the locker room atmosphere. At the university, the young women were mostly stressed and unhappy. They talked on their phones or to their exercise partners about their weight, finances, studies, and relationship issues. Almost all of them hid their bodies by crouching as they undressed. Except for occasional happy talk about weekends or school holidays, conversation was generally gloomy.
On the other hand, in my new locker room, we older women walk around unselfconsciously naked or in utilitarian underclothes or swimsuits. Our bodies are saggy with plenty of stretch marks, wrinkles, and cellulite, but do we care? Not much.
We are more interested in each other’s faces, which reveal decades of joy and suffering and are often open and awake to the moment.
Older women do talk about their troubles, especially what we call the “organ recitals,” that is, conversations about health issues. Mostly, though, we discuss family, travel, books, movies, and fun. We joke around. For example, one day I heard a woman say, “The kinder you are to them the longer they last.” Another woman asked, “What are you referring to?” Then, one by one, the rest of us chimed in, “Your knees,” “Your bank account,” “Your swimsuit,” and “Your husband.”
How do we manage our many difficulties? I argue that neither our genetics nor our external circumstances determine our happiness. Rather, happiness depends on how we deal with what we are given. Even though we all suffer, we don’t all grow. Not all older women become elders. Successful resolutions of our developmental challenges don’t just happen. We don’t become our wisest selves without effort. Our growth requires us to become skilled in perspective taking, in managing our emotions, in crafting positive narratives, and in forming intimate relationships. We develop the skills of building joy, gratitude, and meaning into every day. By learning these lessons, we cultivate emotional resilience.
We have the capacity to build happiness into our lives with humor, concern for others, and gratitude. Of course, we can’t do it all of the time. That self-expectation would drive us crazy. However, we can develop habits that make it more likely that we will respond in an upbeat manner. It’s critical to distinguish between choosing to live lovingly and cheerfully and living a life of denial. One leads to joy, the other to emotional death. I have learned from my work as a therapist that secrets, denial, and avoidance invariably cause trouble. To move forward requires seeing clearly.
When we lose a beloved or learn that our health is deteriorating, our natural response is full-body despair. We are likely to panic, go numb, and wonder if we can survive. As we emerge from shock, we feel all the other painful emotions as well. We don’t heal without hurting. For a while, the cure for the pain is the pain.
I don’t recommend controlling our emotions, but rather listening to them. They are delivering information that is vital to our recovery. We want to fully experience our emotions in both our hearts and our bodies. If we do this, we will gradually move toward healing and hope.
Part of what allows us to deeply appreciate our lives and savor our time is our past despair. In fact, it has great value as a springboard for growth. There is an ancient and almost universal cycle that involves trauma, despair, struggle, adaptation, and resolution. This is a deepening cycle that prepares us for whatever comes next. It opens our hearts to others and helps us feel grateful for every small pleasure.
My role models are not women who avoided reality, but rather social activists such as Alice Paul, Tillie Olsen, and Grace Boggs who saw reality clearly and set about to improve it. I have always admired the multifaceted genius Margaret Fuller. In the early 1800s, she campaigned for birth control and women’s rights. She once declared, “I accept the universe.” She accepted it, in that she understood it and didn’t deny reality, but she acted both to benefit women and to enjoy her life to the fullest.
Let us all reach for the freedom to see, hear, and feel everything. That does not mean we act on impulse. Rather, it means that, like Margaret Fuller, we have the fortitude to face the truth directly and then build our happiness accordingly.