Woman to Woman: You'll Be Happy to Know You'll Get Happier Every Day
Woman to Woman: You'll Be Happy to Know You'll Get Happier Every Day

By Ana Veciana-Suarez

"What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." -- Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette

My back hurts, my left shoulder's stiff and I've stopped being surprised by the insouciant glimpse of gray on my head. I need eyeglasses to write a sentence and, sometimes, strong black coffee to keep the words flowing. In other words, I'm marching straight into the inevitable recognition of my mortality.

But soon I'll be happy, happier than I've ever been. Or so I'm told.

When the thrice-married French writer Colette famously uttered those words, she was long past her youth, perched on the superb vantage point of late life. She obviously had made peace with her decisions, albeit tardily. She was wise.

I was reminded of Colette when a recent study on happiness published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences made headlines. Analyzing a large Gallup poll that asked, among other things, about "global well-being," a Stony Brook University psychiatry professor concluded that happiness tends to improve as one gets older.

In spite of physical pains. In spite of heartaches. In spite of the realization one is running out of time.

Happiness, researchers say, has a U-shaped relationship with age. People are relatively happy until they're 18 -- then life happens. Mortgages, jobs, children, relationships, disappointments with a capital D. So that youthful feel-good quality heads south until one hits 50. After bottoming out in the early 50s, however, people grow steadily happier, and by the time they're 85, they're again pretty pleased with themselves.

Nobody really knows why. The study didn't look into what makes people happy, and certain traits -- sex, employment status, children at home, having a partner -- didn't make much of a difference. Age seemed to be the only common denominator among the blissful.

Admittedly, this lack of explanation has proved frustrating for researchers, pundits and lay people who, like me, believe what our founding fathers wrote about inalienable rights and the pursuit of happiness. We want an easy potion, a 12-step process, something we can keep for ourselves and market.

Happiness is already big business. Stroll the aisles of any bookstore -- which, for me, is joy-inducing in and of itself -- and you'll find hundreds of self-help books. The implicit promise of getting organized, losing weight, moving into the corner office or making lots of money is simple: achieving happiness. There's even a Happiness Project on the Web, complete with blog, newsletter and tips.

Arthur A. Stone, the lead researcher of the Stony Brook study, speculated on NPR that, as you age, "you sort of know where you are in life. You stop looking forward quite so much and you start focusing on smaller things in life like being with friends and family or hobbies or volunteering that bring you immediate satisfaction."

I'll venture my own theory. Age brings perspective. Experience provides another view, a better angle, a sharper prism. The minor tragedies of daily life are no longer the end of the world and the major ones -- the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, the cataclysmic destruction of property -- turn out to be survivable. You learn to savor the moment, to appreciate the here and now.

But there's a catch: It takes a lot of years and hard knocks for us to get to that point, a lot of mistakes and missed opportunities. If only there were a way to figure it out before the wrinkles came.


Woman to Woman: "You'll Be Happy to Know You'll Get Happier Every Day"

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