The Nation's Pulse

Happy Whiny People

Why really old people are happier than you and me.

By 1.6.11

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I was really looking forward to being a grumpy old man -- nothing to do all day but shuffle about the house kicking the cat, writing angry letters to the editor, and spending long periods secluded in the bathroom. But now researchers have doused my dream with cold water. Apparently, we are more likely to grouse, kvetch and carp at mid-life than we are at end of life.

Well, that explains Glenn Beck.

According to these killjoy researchers, we are at our happiest at age 80. It doesn't seem fair, I know. We should be happiest in the prime of life, not when we're spending 75 percent of our time in doctors' waiting rooms, and the rest of the time driving (very slowly, down the middle of the road, making ample use of the brake) back and forth to the doctor's office.

The study also finds that old women are slightly happier than old men. I'm guessing the reason grandma is so giddy is because her late husband left her a bank account full of Benjamins to spend on group bus tours to Branson, and large cash donations to television preachers. The study doesn't really go into that.

Conventional wisdom has it that old folks are cranky and ornery cusses. And, by and large, that has been my experience, both as an observer and as an old man in training. I've always assumed old men are cantankerous because, well, in their own words, "kids these days have no respect for anything. And they play that damn Victrola music too loud!"

They're also grumpy because they fought World War II so their kids and grandkids could remain free, and for what? So they can wear their pants down around their knees?

And they're grumpy because there are 497 channels and not one decent thing to watch. At least not since they cancelled Matlock.

Actually, I think most old men are grumpy because when they were kids they had to do chores from sunrise till sundown, and slog 20 miles to school (uphill both ways), and it made them grumpy and they've been grumpy ever since.

Only, apparently, they aren't.

This from the Economist:

Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter...sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.

So contrary to conventional wisdom, life is not one long, downhill death march to the grave. Rather our journey skips along a U-shaped path, beginning with our carefree slacker years, then descending like a lead curtain with marriage, kids, office job, financial troubles, layoffs, stupid neighbors, then a sharp uptick as one nears one's dotage, and the kids move to Seattle, and you finally retire from your soul-destroying job, and calmly await sweet, sweet death.

The study also finds we are typically most forlorn between the ages 50-53. I'm 47, so that means I've got my most miserable years ahead of me. Yay.

Interestingly, it is not having angry, sullen teenagers in the home, a stressful job and a corpulent spouse that makes mid-lifers miserable. They are miserable because it is natural to be unhappy in mid-life. Period.

STILL, THE NOTION that old people are grouches is hard to shake. The study explains this misconception too. Supposedly, it takes more to ruffle gray feathers because oldsters have finally made peace with how pathetic and disappointing --  err, I mean ordinary --  their lives have turned out. They have accepted the fact that they aren't going to write the great American novel, or even a memorable Tweet, that they will never have that summer cottage on Cape Cod, and that their daughters all married knuckleheads. And that's okay.

Also, old people are happier because they no longer care about the nonsense younger people care about: i.e., ambition, popularity, looks, material goods, pleasing supposedly important people. In fact, they don't care about much of anything. I already don't care about those things, so I'm off to a good start.

None of this means old folks are not thoroughly disgusted with today's youth. Other research shows that old fogies get a boost of self-esteem reading negative articles about young people, because, basically, everything in popular culture and TV is aimed at them, except Matlock, and they had to go and cancel that.

That's good news too. It means one can be old and happy and still enjoy watching young people get their comeuppance. In fact, I'm feeling happier just thinking about it.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.