Each of these items is related.
Surveys have found virtually the same level of happiness between the very rich individuals on the Forbes 400 and the Maasai herdsman of East Africa. Lottery winners return to their previous level of happiness after five years. Increases in income just don’t seem to make people happier–and most negative life experiences likewise have only a small impact on long-term satisfaction. “The relationship between money and happiness is pretty darned small,” says Peter Ubel, a professor of medicine at the University of Michigan.
Betty Friedan’s last major published work was a careful and lengthy reconsideration of aging. The Fountain of Age explored the unexpected depth and strength that is hidden within life’s third age. In one of the book’s most engaging chapters, Friedan tells of being challenged to rappel down a 300-foot cliff during an Outward Bound-type expedition. She declined the invitation. Such a refusal would burden most adults with powerful feelings of guilt and shame. As an elder, she experienced her refusal as evidence of a new kind of freedom. She understood that, finally, “I don’t have to compete to prove myself — I can live with the fact that I’ll never rappel and that failure doesn’t really matter one way or another.”
There is nothing about getting older that prepares you for dying. The process of dying, though similar for everyone, always feels so uniquely individual that the fact that the world continues to turn and Big Macs continue to be sold and there is a line at the DMV all feels like a great betrayal. But the world doesn’t stop for death, even when it’s our turn. And this comes as a surprise to everyone and it is sad every time, even at age 95. As a patient recently said to me, “No one wants to leave the party.”
Modern society’s ferocious insistence on adulthood and the pinnacle of the human life cycle distorts nearly every aspect of human experience. What happens when we redraw the human life cycle using happiness as the defining variable?
When people start out on adult life, they are, on average, pretty cheerful. Things go downhill from youth to middle age until they reach a nadir commonly known as the mid-life crisis. So far, so familiar. The surprising part happens after that. Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.
This curious finding has emerged from a new branch of economics that seeks a more satisfactory measure than money of human well-being. Conventional economics uses money as a proxy for utility—the dismal way in which the discipline talks about happiness. But some economists, unconvinced that there is a direct relationship between money and well-being, have decided to go to the nub of the matter and measure happiness itself.
The “End” of life in the post’s title refers– strangely it might seem– to the end (or purpose) to which life is devoted. When we use the metric of happiness, adulthood loses its shine and can be seen for what it is, a difficult but necessary passage that bridges youth and age.