“On a day-to-day basis, I probably do the same things, but I feel different,” [my 50-year old friend K.] says. Her values have shifted away from work: “I could see that was not going to be a big source of achievement. I measure my worth now by how I can help others and contribute to the community. I think I feel a great gratitude.”
It turns out that there is good science about this gift: studies show quite strongly that people’s satisfaction with their life increases, on average, from their early 50s on through their 60s and 70s and even beyond. In a 2011 study, for example, the Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and seven colleagues found that “the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.” A common hypothesis is alluded to by Carstensen and her colleagues in their 2011 paper: “As people age and time horizons grow shorter,” they write, “people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments.” Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness.
Hannes Schwandt, a young economist at Princeton, found that, during middle age, people experienced a sort of double whammy: satisfaction with life was declining, but expectations were also by then declining (in fact, they were declining even faster than satisfaction itself). In other words, middle-aged people tend to feel both disappointed and pessimistic, a recipe for misery. Eventually, however, expectations stop declining. They settle at a lower level than in youth, and reality begins exceeding them. Surprises turn predominantly positive, and life satisfaction swings upward.
Surveying both modern research and ancient texts, Dilip V. Jeste, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Diego, found that the traits of the wise tend to include compassion and empathy, good social reasoning and decision making, equanimity, tolerance of divergent values, comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity. And the whole package is more than the sum of the parts, because these traits work together to improve life not only for the wise but also for their communities. Wisdom is pro-social. Perhaps wisdom provides benefits to our children or our social groups that make older people worth keeping around, from an evolutionary perspective. Older people are less prone to feel unhappy about things they can’t change—an attitude consistent, of course, with ancient traditions that see stoicism and calm as part of wisdom. In fact, it is well established that older people’s brains react less strongly to negative stimuli than younger people’s brains do. Other studies find that social reasoning and long-term decision-making improve with age; that spirituality increases (especially among women); that older adults feel more comfortable coping with uncertainty and ambiguity.
Footnote: From Jonathan Rauch, The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis, THE ATLANTIC (December 2014), http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-real-roots-of-midlife-crisis/382235/