Why We Get Happier with Age

Recent studies suggest that those of us who make it to “old age” might experience some of the best years of our lives. Scientists now believe that changes in the brain could explain why people not only seem to get wiser as they age, but also much happier. In this extended interview with Sara Nics, neuropsychiatrist Dilip Jeste—who is 70 years old—talks about his research and his own experiences. According to Jeste,

“Life gets better after 60 or 70… Older people are more contented, happier. They enjoy their life more than when they were younger. The physical health gets worse, to be sure, but the mental and social functioning improves.”

That idea is so different from the usual story we hear. Why don’t we hear the story that you’re telling more often?

I think that the problem is that we are brought up with ageism right from our childhood. So we are taught that old age is all gloom and doom, and the modern society is obsessed with youth, beauty and physical prowess. These things do go down somewhat with aging, but, for an older person, it doesn’t matter. You know, we talk about paradise lost and paradise gained. In a way, old age is paradise lost in terms of physical health, but it is also paradise regained because of greater happiness and wisdom.

It sounds like people’s priorities change over time. You said that they get more contented. Why is it that people become happier and more contented as they get older?

I think it’s a change perception. For example, if a 20-year-old person looks at an 80-year-old in a wheelchair, the 20-year-old says, “I don’t want to be like that when I get older. I don’t want to live that life.” But for the 80-year-old in the wheelchair, he says, “Oh, I am so lucky to be alive. Most of the people I was born with are no longer around. Some of them are in nursing homes and here I am, feeling good about myself, what I did in my life. And I am actually quite grateful for what I have.”

You’ve used MRIs to test the cognitive abilities of older people. What did you look for and what did you find?

So there have been a number of studies of MRI and FMRI, but most of the studies have focused on cognitive deficits in older people… they focus on finding out why older people do worse on memory, learning, other things, compared to younger people. What we are interested in is finding out why some older people do well in spite of being older. So, we focus on successful agers: older people who are cognitively functioning similar to younger ones. And what we find is that these successful agers typically are more active physically, cognitively and socially. They tend to have better structure and function of the brain. For example, the successful agers have more gray matter in certain areas of the brain that are related to learning. Similarly on fMRI, we find that in the successful agers, larger areas of the brain kind of light up. That is, there are more activations of neurons and neuronal circuits.

So does that greater actively, both cognitively and physically equal more happiness?

In general, that is true, that people who are more active function better and are happier. Of course, it happens in the other direction also. People who are happier are likely to be more active and then they will help their brains and bodies stay healthier for a longer time.

I understand that you’ve also been studying wisdom. How do you go about that?

Yes. So what is wisdom? In a way, we all have an idea about what a wise leader should be, or what a wise parent should be… somebody who knows a lot about life, makes appropriate social decisions, is kind to others, knows herself well, is thoughtful and rational, rather than impulsive, tolerates opinions different from hers, but is also decisive when she needs to be… And, interestingly, when we did the literature review on definitions of wisdom that people had used, we found a remarkable similarity.

Did you compare different cultures at all? Did you find, maybe, that in some parts of the world people age more successfully? Are there cultures in which older people are assumed a resource for the society that they’re part of?

I think the systematic research of the kind one would like is lacking. However, there are studies showing that in Oriental cultures – for example in Japan, China, India – old age is respected… There you find more life satisfaction among the older people. Also, from a different angle, we know that longevity is more common in places like Okinawa, for example, where throughout life – including old age – people tend to be physically active, mentally active, socially active, they follow better nutritional guidelines. And so, both physically successful aging and happiness, you do see more in certain cultures than others. Coming from India… my upbringing helped me appreciate the greater happiness in older people, because typically the Oriental cultures respect older people and so they tend to be happier.

So you reviewed the literature, the past studies that have been done into wisdom. What is the next step? What are you working on now?

We did a couple of other things to understand what wisdom is. One was, we gathered a group of international researchers on wisdom and we used a method in which you survey them and get their opinions anonymously… We looked at wisdom in the [Bhagavad] Gita. The Gita is kind of the Indian bible, if you will. It was written several hundred years B.C. So we used a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods to find out how wisdom was defined in the ancient Indian culture. And what is impressive is that the definitions of wisdom across these things – the literature review, the expert consensus, and wisdom in an ancient document – it turns out that the definitions are largely similar, which was really striking. What that meant to us is that it must be biologically-based. That it is not purely a cultural definition that changes from one place to another, or from one time to another, but it seems to be rooted in the biology, which means probably in the brain.

Do you have hypotheses about what in the brain is making people wiser, perhaps, as they get older?

Yeah, so, we had been studying where in the brain the wisdom may be located and what we did was, again, a comprehensive review of the literature… and what we found was that when you look at the components of wisdom that I described earlier, like compassion, empathy, social decision-making, what we find is that only a few areas of the brain are involved in most of them. There is something called the pre-frontal cortex, which is the newest part of the brain in the evolution. And then there’s something called amygdala, which is the oldest part of the brain in the evolution. So what we proposed is that wisdom reflects a balance between the oldest and the newest parts of the brain.

I associate the amygdala with impulsivity and the frontal lobe more with thinking things through, taking time to consider, that kind of thing. Is that correct?

You’re correct. The one thing to clarify is that the prefrontal cortex is not just one thing. There are different parts of prefrontal cortex which have somewhat different functions. There is one part called dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. I compare that to a proverbial father who is strict, disciplinarian, tells the kids what not to do…. also tells the kids to study hard, compete with others, be number one. And then, there is another part of prefrontal cortex, called ventromedial prefrontal cortex that’s like a proverbial mother. That part tells people to be kind, generous to others… Those need to be in balance. We can’t be too selfish, we can’t be too generous. For the survival of self and species, there needs to be a balance. That’s actually the concept of wisdom, mainly balance between these various tendencies in order to help oneself as well as others.

You say that the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, the relationship between them changes over time. Is that right?

What I said is, they are related to wisdom. And the balance between the different structures and their function is what constitutes wisdom… So what happens with age? Two things. There are normal, age-related changes that help improve some components of wisdom. For example, the amygdala has been shown to become less responsive to unpleasant situations or stimuli in older people. It continues to have a robust response to pleasant stimuli or situations. But unpleasant situations, the response goes down in older age. So you can relate that to the fact that in older people there is less regret, there is less memory about things that went wrong. When you are young, you are very sensitive to what other people think, and if ten people like you and one person doesn’t, you will carry that one person who doesn’t like you and make you feel bad. When you are older, the same thing happens, you’ll forget the one person who didn’t like you and think about the other ten people. But there is another fact, that not everybody becomes wiser.

How do you think that wisdom – as you’re defining it – relates to happiness? Why does being wiser make us happier?

Wisdom involves emotional regulation. In other words, the emotions don’t fluctuate a whole lot. It is the exact opposite of teenagers. You know, the teenagers, their emotions change from hour-to-hour, even minute-to-minute. Whereas a wiser person would have her or his emotions much more under control. So something good happens, they won’t become ecstatic, or something bad happens, they won’t be totally in despair. At the same time, contentedness is a part of wisdom. So, if I do my job well, I get satisfaction from doing that job well, not necessarily because of the fruit I would get from a job well done, not the money I will get. So there is a satisfaction that translates into a happiness.

So if this growing wisdom has biological underpinnings, like you suggest, are there ways that we could learn to be wiser earlier? Or do we just have to wait it out?

One thing I should say at the outset is that wisdom and aging are related but they are not the same… It is not that age automatically brings wisdom; it often does, mainly because of the experience. When you are young, you don’t have that much experience, so you’re outlook of the world is very limited. As you get older, you have different kinds of experiences and those who learn from the experience and react to it positively will become wiser. Those who don’t won’t become wiser.

It’s appealing to have an idea about aging that is positive, about a benefit of aging…

Yeah. I think that that’s one of the problems I have with the usual notion of aging. Most people think about aging as a disaster. They think about aging in the same way that they think about cancer: it is something to be cured or prevented. We talk about fountain of youth… We should think about aging as a great resource. Older people are a tremendous resource to the society because many of them are wiser. They have a lot of experience. They know the things to do and not to do. They are more emotionally regulated. They are less susceptible to peer pressure. There are so many things that older people can bring to the society, including younger generations, that we need to look at aging as a positive phenomenon, rather than something that is all doom and gloom.

It’s great to hear you talk about this because it makes me think that the message may be, “Take really good care of yourself, so you can age really successfully, because you’re going to be happier than you’ve ever been.”

Right.

May I ask how old you are?

I just turned 70.

Congratulations. Are you happier now than you were, say, ten or 20 years ago?

Absolutely. I feel that I know myself better, both my limitations and strengths. And I don’t pay as much attention to what others might think of me. So there is less peer pressure. For example, the research I am doing right now on successful aging and wisdom… I don’t think I would have done that when I was younger because it is risky to do research in these areas.

Why is that?

Because typically we focus on treating diseases and disabilities. From a research perspective, it is easier to do research on, say, cancer or diabetes or depression because we have definitive criteria for them. And as we do research, then we can develop treatments and cure or prevent those diseases. So that’s all wonderful. But people have difficulty in accepting positive things like successful aging or wisdom… they are somewhat fuzzy concepts. Cancer is not a fuzzy concept… there is difficulty in accepting these concepts that are not clear. And that’s why I would have difficulty, myself, doing research on these things 25 years ago. I would have worried about my reputation and so on. Now I feel that I am well-established and if somebody doesn’t like that [field of research], so be it. I strongly believe that these are important entities that need research and now I feel confident enough to continue working on them.

Is that also because you feel free now to, perhaps, follow your interest and passion, and not just worldly success or the applause of your peers?

That’s correct. But it’s also that I expect that we will be able to show that these are really biological entities. And we will be able to, eventually… find ways for enhancing successful aging or for enhancing wisdom.

Why People Get Happier in Old Age

Life gets better for people in their 60s and 70, according to lots of recent studies. Why? Geriatric psychiatrist Dilip Jeste says people often become wiser with age.

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