Aging gracefully

COLLEEN CARROLL CAMPBELL

If happiness depends on what movies like Sex and the City say it does – flawless physiques and up-to-the-minute fashions, keeping up with the Joneses in possessions and sex appeal – then elderly Americans surely are the most miserable among us.

When the first Sex and the City movie debuted two summers ago, the big-screen version of the popular TV series made a splash at the box office and delighted its legions of die-hard fans. This time around, Carrie Bradshaw and her gal pals are having a tougher time.

Sex and City 2 opened last weekend to disappointing box-office receipts and dismal reviews, most of them laced with a recurring complaint: These women are getting too old to act like superficial, sex-crazed coeds.

It's an intriguing criticism, given that the fictional foursome has been parlaying sex jokes and shoe shopping into a successful franchise since 1998. What finally made the aging sirens cross the line from liberated to pathetic? Was it the sequel's subplot about 50-something sexaholic Samantha trying to stave off menopause with vitamins and lotion? Or 40-something shopaholic Carrie flitting through the desert trapped in the same cartoonish fashions and adolescent romantic conflicts that occupied her a dozen years earlier?

Silly as the show's forever-young shtick may be, there's a reason it has taken so long for viewers to tire of it. Deep down, many of us want to believe the fiction that Sex and the City sells: that looks, libido, health and wealth have no expiration date, and as long as we work hard enough to hold onto them, we can revel in youthful happiness indefinitely.

That fiction sells because of our deep-rooted fear of aging. Old age is associated with everything our popular culture teaches us to dread, from declining energy and limited incomes to lower productivity and moribund libidos. If happiness depends on what movies like Sex and the City say it does – flawless physiques and up-to-the-minute fashions, keeping up with the Joneses in possessions and sex appeal – then elderly Americans surely are the most miserable among us.

Except that they're not. Several studies have emerged in recent years to challenge our assumptions about youth and happiness. Their findings suggest that we should rethink our national pastime of pursuing happiness by running from the reality of old age.

The most recent such study, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences and highlighted in The New York Times, drew on Gallup poll data to show that people grow happier as they grow older. Led by Stony Brook University psychologist Arthur Stone, the study concluded that people in their mid- to late-50s are happier and less stressed than those in their 20s, and respondents tend to be more content at 85 than they were at 18.

Other studies have reached similar conclusions. In 2008, an American Sociological Review study by University of Chicago sociologist Yang Yang that concluded "overall levels of happiness increase with age." Based on data from the National Opinion Research Center's General Society Survey, Yang noted the "paradox" of her finding that "despite physiological declines, the onset of frailty, and social losses such as widowhood, older adults are able to appraise their quality of life positively and sustain high levels of well-being."

Others embrace the "maturity hypothesis": the belief that with years come greater wisdom, patience, gratitude for what you have and acceptance of your own and others' limitations.

Those high levels of well-being are not merely due to an earlier generation's inclination to contentment, Yang found. Nor do they vary significantly by race and gender, as happiness levels do for younger Americans. Rather, the increase in happiness appears linked to aging itself – the very process our culture says will be the end to our good times.

Many older adults struggle with depression, of course, and researchers say some of the correlation between aging and happiness may stem from lowered expectations or a tendency to forget bad times. Others embrace the "maturity hypothesis": the belief that with years come greater wisdom, patience, gratitude for what you have and acceptance of your own and others' limitations.

Those virtues once were considered the crowning jewels of old age. We don't pay much attention to them nowadays, obsessed as we are with squeezing every last pubescent pleasure out of our waning years. Perhaps we should rethink that strategy for achieving happiness. Instead of mimicking Carrie and the gang as they chase the pipe dream of perpetual adolescence, we could learn from those elders whose happiness suggests that aging gracefully is actually a lot more fun.

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Colleen Carroll Campbell. "Aging gracefully." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (June 3, 2010).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Colleen Carroll Campbell.

THE AUTHOR

Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and former presidential speechwriter. Author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Campbell writes a weekly op-ed column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, blogs on religion and politics for The New York Times and The Washington Post, speaks to audiences across America, and hosts her own television and radio show, "Faith & Culture," on EWTN, the world's largest religious media network. Her website is here.

Copyright © 2010 Colleen Carroll Campbell




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