I've always liked this quote from Abraham Lincoln, who was known to suffer from major bouts of depression: "Folks are usually as happy as they make their minds up to be."
In the last decade, dozens of best-selling books have been published that dissect the various attitudes and techniques needed to get and keep a positive frame of mind. From Martin Seligman's "Authentic Happiness" to Gretchen Rubin's "The Happiness Project," there is no shortage of sage advice regarding how to be a more upbeat person. After all, according to Rubin: "Contemporary research shows that happy people are more altruistic, more productive, more helpful, more likable, more creative, more resilient, more interested in others, friendlier, and healthier. Happy people make better friends, colleagues, and citizens." Who wouldn't want to be part of that group?
Fortunately for us, age is on our side. Researchers at The Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics studied over 20,000 people between the ages of 17 and 85, and their findings were very surprising. Evidently, people in their early 20s are pretty darn happy. After all, those are the years when people effortlessly look and feel their best. Remember Gail Sheehy's 1976 book "Passages"? She was one of the first to chronicle what would later be known as the Teflon shield effect, which allows young people to feel invincible and invulnerable. According to Sheehy, we all need to enter adulthood in an emotionally protected state, otherwise the sudden awareness of future harsh realities in life will overwhelm us.
But the London researchers then discovered that happiness levels usually decline after our early 20s until we reach our mid-to-late 50s. Then, fortunately, they begin climbing back up until we reach our late 60s. If we're lucky, they don't dip again until our late 70s.
Another interesting study from Scientific American, which was published in the Journal of Research in Personality, analyzed thousands of people across four decades of life starting at age 16. The findings indicated that extraverted, emotionally stable young adults tend to be happier when they reach retirement age than young adults who are reticent or experience emotional turbulence.
I realize that researchers tend to focus on statistical tendencies. But I like to think that we all have a modicum of control over our well-being. And taking the time to analyze what things in life make you happy (or unhappy) is the first logical step toward avoiding the things that threaten your cheerful state of mind. If heavy metal music or rush-hour traffic make your blood pressure skyrocket, then you know two things that definitely need to be on your Avoid at All Costs list.
That being said, an additional study at the University of Chicago found that life seems to get increasingly better, or people perceive it to get better, with age. In general, the chances of being happy increase about 5 percent each decade. And the different levels of contentment between subjects of different races and socioeconomic statuses also faded as people aged. According to Yang Yang, a University of Chicago sociologist and author of the study, "The good news is that with age comes happiness."
For years, there's been a stereotype of the lonely, idle nursing home resident who passes away the hours in solitude. But according to Benjamin Cornwell, co-author of another University of Chicago study, only about 4 percent of Americans aged 75 to 84 are actually in nursing homes. And 75 percent of people aged 57 to 85 wisely engage in one or more social activities every single week.
Duke University aging expert Linda George believes that part of the Senior Happiness Formula centers around the fact that with passing years, it becomes easier for us to downshift our gears when it comes to expectations. In her words, an older, hyper-ambitious person is wise enough to say to themselves, "It's fine that I was a schoolteacher and not a Nobel Prize winner."
Do you feel happier now?
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.