September 12 is National Grandparents Day, the first Sunday after Labor Day, an official national holiday signed by President Carter in 1978. It’s not widely celebrated. While grandparents are appreciated, they seem especially in these days of the pandemic to be regarded as well, old, frighteningly vulnerable to disease and death, maybe a little sad nearing the end of their lives in such a state.
According to studies about happiness, however, you would be wrong to believe that.
In fact, a growing number of studies about persons 50 years old and beyond is finding that the age group we call seniors is in many ways the happiest demographic in terms of satisfaction. It’s built into the human DNA. That realization is changing the way humans of a certain age live and interact throughout the world, according to Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., in his 2018 book, “The Happiness Curve.”
Rauch’s happiness curve is U-shaped — like the emoji smile — with up periods on each end (childhood and old age) and slopes culminating in the depths of the curve during middle age.
You can view the concept of senior satisfaction portrayed in artwork on display at the National Gallery of Art. In a square room all by themselves, four imposing paintings by landscape artist Thomas Cole — the founder of the Hudson River School — are hung, one on each wall. Each meticulously detailed seven feet-long and five-feet-high painting, depicts a stage of life: Childhood; Youth; Manhood or middle age; and Old Age. Together they are known as “The Voyage of Life.”
The works were painted in 1839 and are said to fulfill Cole’s ambition to tell elevating stories with paintings, “to produce a happy effect and affect the mind of the beholder like the works of great poet.” “The Voyage of Life” paintings became instantly popular and are a graphic depiction for everyday folks and scholars of any age, of the drama of Rauch’s happiness curve.
“While the exact age for each stage can differ, mileage is different for everyone,” writes Rauch. “Almost everyone no matter their economic, social, cultural background and gender goes through the four stages. Social scientists have found that on average almost every person experiences innocent joy in childhood, adventurous excitement and uncertainty as youth, adventures, struggles and achievements as well as disappointment and declining optimism in middle age and then, gradually accelerating satisfaction in ‘old age.’ ”
Cole depicts “the tumultous mid years” as an aging person in a boat with a broken rudder, being battered between rocks and gorges by rough stormy waters that the Voyager cannot control. That tumult is natural and to be expected, according to Cole as well as Rauch. The Voyager can catch only fitful glimpses of the peaceful waters that lay beyond his trials. But most everyone gets to the peaceful shores eventually.
What we now call the senior years — undoubtedly to be relabeled often in the future — seems to be about a “slow-motion emotional reboot,” writes Rauch. It is “the dawn of a whole new stage of adult development which is reshaping the way we think about retirement, education and human potential.”
“The pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right,” wrote Arthur Brooks, the former director of the American Enterprise Institute, in the Atlantic magazine on May 2021. “The idea launched our nation and has preoccupied philosophers, fascinated scientists, inspired artists, launched an enormous self-help industry —and continues to elude many of us.” Now, the pandemic has given the concept new opportunity.
“Our genes, our life events, and our own actions all matter,” Brooks writes. “But now during this pandemic recovery period, everyone has a chance to think hard about how to refocus our lives — especially the busy-ness of it all — to make our lives happier and more meaningful. Brooks cites four factors — faith, family, community, and meaningful work — that dominate the fraction of our happiness that we can control. “For the sake of ourselves and our communities, we need to choose how to invest deeply in those four things and forget the rest,” he adds.
According to the insights of Cole’s Voyager, the people who can do that refocusing best are those journeying through the years in the 50th decade and beyond.
Grandparents Day is perhaps the perfect time to acknowledge this last phase of the journey of life — one that is getting longer and healthier than ever in history and may become the best part of a lifetime. On National Grandparents Day, a call or visit with grandparents to share their satisfactions and insights, may bring those in the other three stages of life’s voyage more happiness sooner rather than later.
This story was supported by a Journalists in Aging Fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, the Journalists Network on Generations and the Silver Century Foundation.