With all the reasons for Americans to feel worried, it’s fun to imagine an alternative reality, one in which beneficent aliens descend from the sky with an offer we would be crazy to refuse. “We propose to bestow upon you an additional 10, 15, eventually 20 healthy, vigorous years during late adulthood, the most emotionally rewarding and pro-social time of life. This is perhaps the greatest gift any generation of humans has ever received, and to grasp it, all you need to do is overcome your own mental obstacles.”
Except for the part about aliens, that story is not science fiction. It is reality right now.
Thanks to heroic advances in medicine and public health, Americans are living longer than ever before. Increased longevity is not news, but what fewer people realize is that recent findings in psychology, brain science and economics all confirm a surprise: Contrary to the stereotype of late adulthood as a time of relinquishment, sadness and decline, it tends to be the most satisfying time of life. Yes, the aging process works against happiness — but only through middle age.
Most people do not have a crisis in midlife, but many do experience a difficult period of restlessness and disappointment. That, however, is not because anything is wrong with their attitudes or their lives; it is the result of an emotional reboot as our values, our expectations and even our brains shift our goals away from chasing status and achievement and toward building connections and community with others — values that not only increase our own contentment but also benefit those around us. Even into our last years, the ticking of the aging clock seems to help us stay positive even in the face of physical decline.
There’s just no way around it: More life at what is often the best time of life is good news for humans, socially as well as individually. Truly a gift. But can we grasp it? Only if we update some outdated assumptions that stand in the way.