Arthur Brooks, columnist at The Atlantic, urges us to imagine ourselves in ten years time.
He wants us to have a firm grip on the steering wheel, so confronts us with a startling fact: happiness bottoms out about 50, then climbs into your 60’s where it splits us into two groups. Half become much happier, the others much unhappier.
Brooks calls these the “happy-well” and “sad-sick” groups.
So how to avoid being in the latter group?
Your financial decisions come home to roost around retirement age. Your physical health, also. But the third plank in the “happy-well” platform is your mental health, which few of us consider in our early lives.
Ignore that and you could end up fit and fiscal, but fucked.
The official ingredients for happiness: Stable relationship, mature adaptive style, no smoking, little use of alcohol, regular exercise, and maintenance of normal weight. The second tip is the secret to a healthful inner life: “Worry less about cholesterol, and more about gratitude and forgiveness“.
Gratitude and forgiveness means learning to roll with the punches. For example, I shouldn’t get the hate-on for my boss every time he’s critical, justifiably or not, about something I did. The irrationality of his decisions often grates on me, but (after a short vent) I shrug it off.
While we’re in the mood for pithy wisdoms, here’s another: “Don’t try to think less of yourself, try to think of yourself less.” Turning fifty makes this SO MUCH easier. You’re invisible. The selfie-conscious crowd don’t see you anymore; they’re too busy looking for reflections of themselves in others.
At fifty you can finally start bringing it all together. The meaning of life: you understand how and why things happen, you have a sense of purpose, and you understand your own significance.
Knowing what your life is about allows you to plan for happiness.
So, what planning can I do to ensure I’m in the “happy-well” group? What does 2032 look like for me? Let’s tick some boxes:
Financially, I don’t have a hard-drive filled with crypto. I can’t move to LA and pursue an acting career with the safety net of wealthy elderly parents who will leave me millions. It’s just the two of us, and so long as we keep working until 60 we’ll be okay by 2032.
Physically, my wife would put a 20yo gym rat to shame, PLUS she comes from a long-lived family. She’ll be active long after I’m gone. My diet is good, I exercise sporadically, and my BMI is improving. If my stuttering pancreas doesn’t kill me first, I expect to be lifting heavy rocks in my 70’s.
Mentally, my genes are pre-programmed for madness. Against the odds, I’m not on the spectrum. I don’t have a dog-eared copy of the DSM-5 on my bookshelf because I’m usually able to “think of myself less” than the average noisy-headed Finn.
I dodged that bullet.
Emotionally, I am split. The most accurate predictor of future happiness is love, or more specifically, what psychologists call “companionate love”—love based on stable affection, mutual understanding, and commitment.
I’ve nailed that, baby.
Where I fall down is my adaptive style: Offence is not always the best defence, turns out. But rage is so in fashion right now that my strategy of fighting fire with fire gets tested a lot. Moving past aggression to forgiveness is the challenge barring me from emotional happiness.
Wish me luck!
So, in summary, on February 21 2032 I’ll remain happily married, and looking forward to our 40th wedding anniversary holiday in Europe somewhere. I’ll be working, though hopefully not shiftwork. I’ll have a bunch of grandchildren. I’ll still be searching for my nugget. I’ll remain able-bodied even if I’m on insulin by then. I’ll have my wits about me. My chess ELO will be above 1000!
And I’ll still be sarcastic.
And I will have written THAT book.
I’m not a natural optimist, more of a cynical realist, but that sounds like a cautious prognosis of happiness! “Happy-well” group for me!
What about you?