Opening a recent talk to seniors about maintaining intimate relationships as we age, I asked a question: Would they be satisfied if, at the end of the lecture, they knew how to be happy in a partnership? They all raised their hands. Then I asked whether they would be satisfied knowing how to be happy whether or not they were in a close relationship. Of course, all the hands went up again.
So what were these seniors looking for? Pretty much the same thing all other humans look for: happiness, security, the opportunity to love and be loved, and to live a life that feels meaningful.
People came to the lecture assuming that happiness required being in an intimate relationship with someone. That’s false. My mother used to say that as long as I had my health, I had my happiness. But as we know from the millions of people who are disabled or chronically ill – and happy – even my mother did not speak the truth.
So what is happiness?
We all look for it, from birth until death. For young people, happiness might mean popularity or beauty. As we age, it might be companionship or having meaning in our lives.
In his best-selling book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert suggests all decisions are about making our future selves happy. Think about it. We get married because we believe it will make us happier. We divorce for the same reason. When we’re lonely, some call a friend, some go to bed, and some go to bed with a friend. The goal is the same – as it is for some people who eat great volumes of food, or so little they starve.
When we look back, many choices that we thought would make us happier turned out to be wrong. We work hard to buy that new house, or to get into that prestigious university. They may actually make us unhappy. Gilbert believes the reverse is also true. What we think will make us miserable often causes happiness. How many people have reported that their lives got better after a trauma?
Here are some of the things we do know about happiness:
Pursuing it above all else makes us self-absorbed, isolated and miserable.
As an emotion, happiness is rarely permanent and is a byproduct of a life well-lived.
Because we are social animals, the more people we are connected with, in any capacity, the more likely we are to feel secure and good about our lives.
Happiness is no less accessible to older people than younger ones. Studies of centenarians have shown that happiness correlates with generosity of spirit. They genuinely care and always seem to have time for people.
Many seniors say they are afraid not of death but of illness or disability. They assume that if they lose their independence, their lives will no longer have meaning. Another falsehood. Developmental psychologists call this late stage of life “consolidation” – a period when we look back and integrate past lessons. It is also a period of great meaning. Both the Old and New Testaments refer to an “ethical will” that compels us to teach our progeny what we’ve learned and how we’ve learned it.
When I speak with large audiences, most say they knew their parents’ values and morals but not their hearts. Almost all wish they had known their parents better. They want to know about the successes and failures that made their parents who they were. They want to know how their mothers and fathers felt about life – and death. My new book, Letters to Sam, can be considered an ethical will.
A past column told of a young woman who said she felt her soul was a prism “but everybody I know only sees one color. Nobody sees the prism.” Most of us spend a lifetime longing for the happiness that comes from being known for who we really are. An ethical will is an opportunity to find happiness by sharing the prism of your soul.