Seeking Joy in Old Age

plane landing witrh palms

In North Europe cold dark February leaches joy from elderly lives. So in Tenerife, every 10 minutes another plane unloads a new cargo of Northern Oldies seeking brief warmth and light but also  hoping for restorative happiness. We crowd down gangways, beam at the unfamiliar sun and then  face the problem of what to do next. Scores of custom-designed oldie-play-areas – “Resort Hotels”- anticipate a future in which a few cheerful, smooth, indigent young people earn a living by cosseting hordes of bewildered, crumpled, solvent elderly. We reach peak satisfaction every morning at primate-paradise breakfasts with omelettes and pancakes and fried eggs on demand and tables stacked with succulent stuff for us to load on plates or secrete  for thrifty lunches. Then the food and crockery begin to disappear and we feel dearth of feasible fun. Shall we bask on sunbeds like disabled dugongs? Pay to be massaged, steamed, and have hot stones laid along our spines? Grab sweets from the reception desk as we exit to streets dulled by daily excursions wandering as mixed pairs  of relatively mobile and optimistic women, each  followed by a despondent man visibly wondering how his life has congealed and nostalgic for a comfy office and secretary  forever lost to him in space and time ? Or sit in bars as bold singletons,  burly, obese males and females flaunting speckled skin and seeking final solutions to the joy problem in huge glasses of mid-morning beer. Once we have got warm for the first time in months can we also manage to get happy?

Old Man in deckchair

Over 2085 years ago Epicurus thought that he had cracked the problem of geriatric joy. Like  contemporary geratro-tourists in Tenerife he believed that since we have just one life the only sensible decision is to spend it as happily as we can. He believed that old age can bring  peak happiness because demands of politics, careers and families have waned, freeing us to pursue the Good Life. His ideas on what constitutes the Good Life were, and still are, misunderstood. Unlike Epicures mis-named after him, or elderly guests at Tenerife resort hotels, he did not think that we can achieve lasting delight by finding and consuming the best of anything that may conceivably cheer us up, especially food and alcohol.  At the entrance to his “garden” which seems to have housed an hospitable commune, a notice read “Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure. The caretaker of this abode, a kindly host, will be ready for you, he will welcome you with bread and serve you water, also in abundance…..”  Epicurus’ sparse surviving writings insist that  the key to enduring happiness is a sufficiency of bread, boiled legumes, water and endless philosophical debate about “the meaning of it all ”.  I like to believe that, in practice, the entertainment in his garden was a little more lavish 1

I have spent far too much time in University common-rooms to buy the idea that, especially when philosophers are present, debates about the meaning of everything spontaneously ignite happiness. Even when the coffee is better than usual and the biscuits are Jammy-Dodgers or Fig Rolls. I do not think that boiled lentils and water would make things any better.  David Klein2, a charming contemporary PR man for Epicurus, describes epiphanies during summer holidays on a Greek Island watching a small group of septuagenarians spend their days at the same table, in the same café playing cards, drinking retzina, scoffing mezzes and gossiping. With respect for Klein’s warm heart, a different café-frequenting philosopher thought that endless time with a few people who soon exhaust all of their anecdotes and opinions would be Hell 3. Another of Klein’s European epiphanies was encountering elderly Frenchmen attain delight while playing petanque. His pleasant Mediterranean images may encourage anyone who ever doubted that some old people can sometimes share bursts of communal contentment or even significant gladness. Some of us would like to hear more from the wives of boules players and barflies.

old men in cafe

Klein makes valid points:  even though many aspects of aging are not very nice, growing old can strip us of burdens of obsolete obligations and ambitions, and futile regret for  “lives that came to nothing, or deeds as well undone ‘til death steps tacitly and takes us where we never see the sun”4. Such thoughts should free us to find new and to rehabilitate neglected sources of joy, or at least of mild contentment. But how to manage this?

As usual, after Philosophers have claimed all the best biscuits in the common room Psychologists rummage left-over crumbs. Between 1939 and 1944 the Harvard University Health Service began the “Grant study of Adult Development” by recruiting 268 undergraduates (including the young John F Kennedy). Between 1940 and 1945 Sheldon Glueck enrolled a further 456 young men from Boston neighbourhoods. 188 members of both groups are still alive in their 80’s and 90’s.  George Valliant has summarised his conclusions from this vast database in his books “Adaptation to Life” and “Triumphs of Experience” 5,6.  :   Health is particularly important and determines happiness and economic success more strongly than genes do. Alcoholism is  destructive of marriages, careers and contentment. Intelligence is a less important predictor of worldly success and happiness than is often supposed. Men who do well in middle age do not necessarily flourish in old age and vice-versa. Recovery from a wretched childhood is difficult but becomes easier with passing years;  a happy childhood is a lifelong advantage; marriages become better when they persist after 70. Being affluent helps.  Valliant’s  most  pleasant discovery  (at least for me) is that elderly Liberals seem to have more and better sex than elderly Republicans. Apart from this last gem I think that I have already worked out all these conclusions for myself without the hassle of running and analysing a 70 year study. I find Valliant’s concluding summary bullet-point endearingly naff:  “Happiness is Love. Full Stop”.

The Harvard study has lasted longer and  probably amassed more disparate details of men’s lives than any other. However it only includes men, is based on small numbers  and, perhaps for this latter reason, the most interesting questions that we might ask of the data are not addressed because there are too few representatives in different categories of persons to make sensible comparisons.  Martin Pinquart7 explored a larger data-base by reviewing findings from 125 different studies.  He concludes that old age seems to be accompanied by a slight decline in happiness (“positive affect”) and a slight increase in unhappiness (“negative affect”). As people age strong emotions, such as being joyously excited or acutely distressed are increasingly replaced by weaker feelings such as relaxation or mild depression. Pinquart acknowledges that in old age we become increasingly likely to experience unavoidable problems with poor health and economic stringencies.   Nobody has ever thanked me for bringing up his findings in conversations about the odds of elderly joy.

Lacey, Smith and Ubel8 used Pete Townsend’s famous line “Hope I Die Before I Get Old; (the things they do seem awful cold)” as the title of a description of a study in which they asked younger and elderly adults how they feel about their present happiness and how they assess the odds of happiness at different times of life. Like Pete Townsend middle-aged adults thought that things will gradually get worse. The already-old agreed that, for most people, things probably do get rather worse as they age but cautioned that they were not speaking for themselves but only for others. Lacey et al point to a paradox of happiness studies: although people of all ages do not think that things get better in old age, responses from successive age-decades suggest that  happiness actually increases after middle age with a possible, slight, decline after the mid 70’s.

This news is mildly reassuring but I have  found nobody who is surprised or excited by it. It confirms that our worst fears about old age are unnecessary (or at least pointless, which is not at all the same thing) and that,  as we continue to survive, things may get better, or at least will probably not become as bad as we fear  unless, and until, we run into unavoidable hard times. It does not tell us what we all deeply, and secretly (for fear of being laughed at) want to know: “What is the best way to live and to be happy, whether in a resort hotel or while trundling through our everyday lives?” Many psychologists have tried to address this by analysing the answers that large numbers of people give to large numbers of quite simplistic questions. This tool does not seem fit for purpose. The excellent “Journal of Happiness studies” has published scores of studies in which people have been asked whether or not they are happy and whether they think that their past or future might have been, or turn out to be better than their present but  I find no answers to the poignant question that we all continue to ask even though we suspect that no answer is possible: “How can I get joyful IMMEDIATELY and go on being happy ever after ? ”

My colleagues and I should not be mocked because our questionnaires and longitudinal studies do not cut the zesty mustard. Philosophers are  luckier because they are free to reach conclusions  without constraint of evidence and, anyhow, tend to divert along dull threads like “What does ‘being happy’ actually mean?” I believe that I have always known when I am “happy” and semantic exercises do not much amuse me or even seem to cheer up my philosophic colleagues. Religious Leaders have always been free to propose any solutions to the Happiness Problem that they care to imagine, and have become experts at marketing their fantasies but, even given these wide opportunities, they are surprisingly evasive. They admit that some who buy into their belief systems may achieve fits of sublime religious rapture but  seem to disapprove of this. The main deal is that their faith can help us to accept everyday unpleasantness and boredom, and even to tolerate excruciations if we accept that these are what a wise and benevolent God has scheduled  for us. Compensating gratification will be delayed but extreme:  an eternity featuring an abundance of virgins (or plums, depending on the translation of the Koran that you choose), or choral singing and harps, or Elysian fields, or delight  in ceaseless, gladsome praise or just Bliss Beyond Understanding (and so, also, conveniently beyond need for description).

heaven's door

“There is a happy land, far, far away! Where we’ll eat bread and jam, three times a day! Oh how we’ll laugh and shout, when the bread and jam’s brought out! We’ll all laugh and shout! Three times a day!”

In contrast Buddhists suggest that the best way to get through life with minimum fret is to be as nice as possible to everybody while learning to desire nothing and so become free from ambitions and regrets. They are pretty cagey about an afterlife. This seems similar to Epicurus’ recommendations, and quite a good idea.

The closest that respectable academic psychologists get to writing recipes for happiness is imagining, and then empirically testing, ways to reduce misery. Specifically, by treating depression, or helping people to recover from disaster, or to cope with uncomfortable lives. I have not previously felt any need to explore this literature because I have led an exceptionally lucky and amusing life during which I have been diverted from worries about attaining true happiness by obsessions with human reaction times and, more recently, with the effects on speed and intelligence of white matter lesions in the brain. My current desire to learn more about how to promote happiness is driven by curiosity rather than necessity (though, of course this may switch at any moment).  I have learned that the best way for me to begin to understand something unfamiliar is to try to discover enough about it to write essays for an imaginary critical audience, just as undergraduates do for their tutors.  So future posts will be my best tries at undergraduate essays on such topics as Mindfulness Meditation, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and other currently fashionable cures for little and large miseries, particularly those that tend to occur in late life. Of course I am very pleased and flattered if anyone reads anything that I write, and  even happier if anyone cares to comment but, for my solipsistic exercises an imaginary audience will do just fine.


  1. It is widely reported that guests in Epicururus’s “garden” also consumed hefty amounts of good wine. He had at least one rich patron who could have provided this, and perhaps some better things than boiled lentils.
  2. David Klein, (2013) “Travels with Epicurus”, One World Publications, by arrangement with Penguin group USA. ISBN 978-1-78074-412-4
  3. J. P Satre (quote from conversation) Hell is Other People.
  4. Apologetically adapted from a verse in A Tocatta of Galuppi’s by Robert Browning
  5. Vaillant, GE (1977),Adaptation to Life, Boston, MA, Little, Brown, 1977 (also Lippincott Williams & Wilkins)  ISBN 0-316-89520-2)
  6. Vaillant, GE (2012),Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, Belknap Press,ISBN 0-674-05982-4
  7. Pinquart, M. (2001). Age Differences in Perceived Positive Affect, Negative Affect and Affect Balance in Middle and Old Age. Journal of Happiness Studies, 2, pp 375-405.
  8. Lacey, H.P., Smith, D. M., Ubel, P.A. (2006). Hope I die before I get old: Mispredicting Happiness Across the Adult Lifespan. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7, pp 167-182.




About Gray Rabbitt

Grumpy gerontologist
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2 Responses to Seeking Joy in Old Age

  1. Amanda says:

    So what’s wrong with Republicans, then?* I’m one, and I think your definition of what science is (in your book) is stellar. One of the very few best descriptions I’ve ever read. It also applies just as well to (genuine) philosophy. Cheers, Amanda

    *I’ve also seen reports that claim the opposite: that married conservatives have better and more than lefties (who tend to practise serial monogamy — or no monogamy at all).

    • Gray Rabbitt says:

      Amanda: Thanks for neat comments. I do not for a moment think that Republicans are in any way sexually challenged. I meant only to be snide about Valliant, whose analyses of the Harvard sample have never gained recognition in the mainstream gerontological literature. Perhaps because he seems to have begun with trite answers rather than useful questions. As to the alleged difference between counts of sexual activity between Democrats and Republicans I see no reason to believe him. Do you think that this could have occurred because the small sample sizes gave undue prominence to inclusion of an unique Democrat respondent, the late President Kennedy?

      On merits of political allegiance: Well, I have to admit being so far from Mrs Palin that she probably could not see me even through her best telescopic rifle sight. I attribute this to a sound upbringing in a staunchly R Wing Roman Catholic family. There is now no way back from apostacy. At any hint of backsliding I would be disowned by a very young, and very much valued grandson Maxim (NOT named for Col Hiram of the famous gun but after
      guess-who). A glance at his blog, “the anonymous revolutionary”, (wordpress com.) will illustrate my predicament.

      Thanks v much for kind words about my comments on science. Much appreciated, but I have become uneasy since a v. v. R wing friend, (see how open and un-dogmatic I am…..) took my phrase “science is smart ignorance” as a fine addition to his armoury of sneers at Evolutionary Theory. Heigh Ho; but if I can help anybody as I pass along, then my living has not been in vain.


      Pat Rabbitt

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