How To Be Drastically Happier And More Creative As You Age, According To Research

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I'm the guy who likes reading the last chapter of the book first.

Likewise, in life, I love learning from the billions of people who have come before me rather than through pure trial and error. In other words, I just turned 39, and I want to know what the surprising patterns of life are in our 40, 50s, 60s, and beyond.

So, I spent dozens of hours doing research over the last year. Overall, I'm actually walking away from the experience feeling incredibly positive about getting older.

Here are four of my biggest surprises from the research...

1. Happiness Tends To Dip In Our Late 40s

The effects of the mid-life dip are comparable to major life events like losing a spouse, losing a job or getting cancer." — David Blanchflower (economist)

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No one knows exactly why this dip happens, but it appears to be fairly universal. In, Is Happiness U-shaped Everywhere? Age and Subjective Well-being in 132 Countries, the researchers conclude: The happiness curve is everywhere.

Explaining some of the implications of the mid-life dip, Economist David Blanchflower states...

"These dips in well-being are associated with higher levels of depression, including chronic depression, difficulty sleeping, and even suicide. In the U.S., deaths of despair are most likely to occur in the middle-aged years, and the patterns are robustly associated with unhappiness and stress. Across countries chronic depression and suicide rates peak in midlife. The mid-life dip in well-being is robust to within person analysis, also exists with the prescribing of antidepressants." —David Blanchflower (economist)

Researchers posit a few reasons why the dip happens in our late forties...

  • Being super busy (simultaneous demands of more work responsibility, taking care of aging parents, and raising kids.)
  • Confronting one's own mortality with visible signs of aging and entering the second-half of life.
  • Reckoning with the difference between our expectations for our life and what has actually happened.
  • Something happening in our biology. A fascinating 2012 study of 500 captive chimps also found a well-being dip in their mid-life.

The good news about the dip is that it seems to be a turning point, not an end point. As the saying goes...

"Sometimes you have to get knocked down lower than you have ever been to stand back up taller than you ever were." —Unknown

2. We're Often More Happy In Our 70s Than Our 30s

"A large-scale study showed that among those over age 75, more than 80% reported being happy or very happy. Most rated their own experience of old age more favorably than what the younger adults would expect of themselves in old age.” — Alan Castel PhD

Perhaps, just as surprising as the dip is the rise afterwards. In fact, for many, their well-being in old age is significantly higher than in their 20s and 30s.

A few hypotheses for this gradual rise put out by researchers include older people getting better at the following:

  • Having relationships. As we get older, we get better at regulating our emotions. This makes it easier to resolve disagreements with people we love the most.
  • Investing in our best relationshipsAs we get older, we tend to be more selective with who we spend time with. More specifically, we focus on deepening our most fulfilling relationships. One study found that this was correlated with happiness.
  • Goal-settingAs we get older, we know ourselves better. Therefore, we are better at picking more meaningful goals. In addition, “As people perceive the future as increasingly constrained, they set goals that are more realistic and easy to pursue, ” according to researcher Laura Carstensen.
  • Managing our emotions. According to several studies, "Older adults move out of highly negative emotional states faster than younger adults do and maintain the absence of negative affect more consistently. Middle-aged and older adults are less physically and emotionally reactive to interpersonal stressors than younger adults. When older adults experience interpersonal tensions, they engage less in destructive conflict strategies, such as yelling, arguing or name calling, and generally find tense interpersonal situations less stressful than younger adults do."
  • Perspective-taking. Someone who is 70 has lived through more of history, so they have seen more cycles repeat themselves. Furthermore, they probably have experienced being kids, being parents, and being grand-parents. This gives them more perspectives.

To get further insight into the surprising benefits of aging, I posed a thought-provoking question to our Learning How To Learn Community (320,000+):

What is the most important thing you learned about life in your 50s or 60s that you never expected and no one told you about?

The amount of responses (250+) exceeded my expectations, and they were almost universally positive. Below are the most upvoted comments...

  • "Most things that seem hard will gradually get easier." —Bonnie D
  • "This too shall pass." —Debbi C
  • "When we harm others we harm ourselves." —Iwona R
  • "That I care less about appearance and more about character." —Nell D
  • "I'm at that age of, 'I don't give a fuck anymore'. If it's not impacting me, if it's not costing me money, and if I can walk away, I don't care." —KaBraxton B
  • "That the beliefs we are raised with are not necessarily fact....question everything!" —Lisa E
  • "Don't sweat the small stuff because it's all small stuff." —Linda Y
  • "Accept what I can’t change." —Alexandra B
  • "All that had happened needed to happen to take you exactly where you are meant to be today." —Zuzi A
  • "You bring about what you think about." —Orletta C
  • "Don’t take things personally. It’s not about you." —Christopher G
  • "How people come and go in and out of your life for their own reasons. The transitory nature of everything." —Marianne D
  • "This too shall pass." —Tess T
  • "That life is better without alcohol." —Clare B
  • "That our lives are not as important as we believe it to be and that we are constantly deceived by our vanities!" —Arthur D
  • "People are different because we’ve all had different exposures. Our truths are not necessarily others’ truth." —Connie S
  • "I'm learning that life is unpredictable." —Paolo G
  • "No one, not even the most educated, knows everything. Good ideas can come from anyone!" —Marguerite L

These lessons are easy to understand intellectually, but hard to feel in one's bones and appreciate without life experience. To a younger person, many of these comments might sound like giving up one's agency. To an older person, they might sound like gaining the ability to be in harmony and flow with the reality of human existence.

3. We Can Still Do Our Best Work After 50

"We are deeply attached to the idea that genius is always signaled in early life—that greatness always has some precursor. But that plainly isn’t always true." —Malcolm Gladwell

Conventional wisdom is that the biggest creative breakthroughs in science, art, and business come from people in their 20s. This conventional wisdom is wrong according to economist David Galenson, author of Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.

Galenson has spent his entire career studying creative life cycles, and he points out that many creator's greatest works came after age 50. Some examples include:

  • Paul Cézanne (65)
  • Henry James (61)
  • Frans Hals (80)
  • Pierre Bonnard (65)
  • Hans Hofmann (80)
  • Elizabeth Bishop (65)
  • Henrik Ibsen (60+)
  • Mark Twain (50)
  • Tolstoy (49)
  • Charles Dickens (49)
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky (59)
  • Frank Lloyd Wright (76)
  • I. M. Pei (64)
  • Clint Eastwood (74)
  • Frank Gehry (68)
  • Alfred Hitchcock (60+)
  • Marcel Proust (56)

So what do these marathon creators have in common. According to Galenson, two things...

  1. First, they remain productive into old age in terms of time invested in their craft.
  2. Second, they keep on improving through iterative experimentation.

These creators are often under-estimated early in their career and praised for their wisdom and judgement later. Rather than a sprint, their careers look more like a marathon with slow and compounding gains.

A similar pattern appears in leadership as well. Many of today's leading CEOs are in their 70s and 80s. CEOs like Michael Bloomberg, Fred Smith, Warren Buffett, Rupert Murdoch, Martin Sorrell, and Sheldon Adelson. Similarly, many of the top women CEOs in the world are in their 60s. Women like Meg Whitman, Indra Nooyi, Margaret Keane, Phebe Novakovic, and Carol Tomé. And, of course, the top US presidential candidates in the last two elections have been about 70 or above.

4. We Can Keep Developing At A Surprising Rate As We Age

If you look at many trends of aging, you see a downward curve...

  • Fluid intelligence decreases
  • Muscle mass decreases
  • Immune system strength decreases

But these graphs are only half the story. The other half of the story is that these are just averages. It is actually fairly easy to be an anomaly simply by regularly exercising, eating well, learning, and trying new things. We can still have our personal best and outcompete people who are in their 20s (on many levels) well into our old age. For example, if you don't exercise in your 20s, but are exercising everyday in your 60s, you can have personal fitness records.

My favorite example of what's possible is Ed Whitlock. He ran a marathon with a time of 2 hours, 54 minutes, and 48 seconds. To put this in context, his mile rate was less than 6 minutes and 50 seconds. Furthermore, when Whitlock was 81, he underwent a battery of physiological tests at a McGill University. Amazingly, his V02 max was roughly equivalent to a collegiate recreational athlete.

Researchers in the adult development field have come to a similar conclusion.

It was previously thought children had rapid growth rates psychologically and that change plateaued in adulthood...

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What we now know is that adults keep growing through additional sequential paradigms...

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Finally, neuroscience is showing us that adult brains are much more plastic than we had ever thought. Summarizing the research consensus, Moheb Costandi, author of Neuroplasticity (MIT Press), states...

Neuroplasticity can be seen in various forms at every level of nervous system organization, from the lowest levels of molecular activity to the highest level of brain-wide systems and behavior.

What You Can Do Now (No Matter How Old You Are)

There are a few simple things you can do right now with this information that will change your life...

First, you can develop more positive beliefs about aging. Several studies have shown that simply having more positive beliefs about aging can have a dramatic impact on how you actually end up aging.

In one particularly fascinating study, 660 individuals age 50 and over in a small town in Ohio were recruited to participate in a survey about their self-perceptions on aging in 1975. Based on their responses to the following questions, they were labeled as having low or high positive self-perceptions of aging (PSPA):

  • “Things keep getting worse as I get older,”
  • “I have as much pep as I did last year,”
  • “As you get older, you are less useful,”
  • “I am as happy now as I was when I was younger,” and
  • “As I get older, things are (better, worse, or the same) as I thought they would be.”

Then, 23 years later, in 1998, researchers identified who had survived and who hadn’t. They also controlled for age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health.

As the chart below shows, individuals with high positive self-perceptions of aging lived an amazing 7.5 years longer than those with low positive self-perceptions of aging...

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The second thing we can do is build our cognitive reserves now. The idea of cognitive reserves originated in the 1980s when individuals with no apparent symptoms of dementia were found to have Alzheimer's disease upon autopsy. Since then, a growing body of literature has shown that people with a higher cognitive reserved as measured by proxies like educational level, occupational status, and engagement in cognitively-stimulating activities can ward off many of the effects of age. Explaining this phenomenon, a Harvard article states...

You can think of cognitive reserve as your brain's ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done. Just like a powerful car that enables you to engage another gear and suddenly accelerate to avoid an obstacle, your brain can change the way it operates and thus make added resources available to cope with challenges. Cognitive reserve is developed by a lifetime of education and curiosity to help your brain better cope with any failures or declines it faces.

Bottom line: With small changes in our lifestyle and mindset now, we can live a happier, healthier, and more impactful life in the decades to come. The best times are ahead of us!

If you want to read my best writing, I recommend reading my articles on Medium. I spend dozens of hours researching and writing each of those articles using the blockbuster approach.