Happiness and sorrow ‘intermingled’
If the concept of ageing evokes a sense of dread, it shouldn’t — especially if you’re a woman.
So says Mary Pipher, a 71-year-old US clinical psychologist renowned for her insights into girls and women.
She says contrary to “noxious and punishing” stereotypes of ageing women as miserable, a woman in her 70s is likely to be the happiest she’s ever been.
“The fact of the matter is we have very good research from the University of California, San Diego, that shows that the happiest demographic in both the UK and the United States is older women,” Dr Pipher tells RN’s Life Matters.
“In fact, people as they age in the United States get happier right up until the last three months before they die.”
Dr Pipher says older people have a mastery of mood, decades in the making.
“We’ve learned over the course of a lifetime that we are responsible for our own happiness; that it’s a matter of attitude, a matter of intentionality, a choice and a set of skills,” she says.
“And we’ve had 70 years to build that set of skills.”
While Dr Pipher says ageing and happiness have a direct correlation, she doesn’t suggest ageing happily is a simple proposition.
“I never argue that any of us can be happy all the time,” she says.
“I think happiness and sorrow are as intermingled as sea water and salt water in the sea, and that if we are a full person, feeling the full gamut of our emotions, we don’t feel happy all the time.
“Of course we feel sad, we feel pain, we feel anger. And in fact, authenticity and self-acceptance are being able to work skilfully with those emotions.”Listen to the podcast
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What’s key, she says, is the decision “to look for something to appreciate, to look for beauty”.
“We can have that choice walking out of our best friend’s funeral. We can decide to look up at the clouds in the sky or taste the rain on our tongue or listen for birdsong.”
She says many older people have this covered — because the years have taught them how.
“The more loss, the more that is taken from them, the more they have learned to savour that which is left,” she says.
“All these things don’t mean we don’t feel pain, but we can make some choices that allow us to grow into bigger people than we would have been otherwise.”
Today older people are “not working as hard as they used to work” and “are more likely to have money than younger people”, enabling them to eat out or travel more freely, she says.
But, perhaps more significantly, ageing brings with it a greater impetus to do — rather than simply consider doing — the things that bring us pleasure.
“One of the things that happens when we realise that the runway is short, is that we also simultaneously realise how fortunate we are to be alive,” Dr Pipher says.
“I used to say, ‘well, eventually I’m going to do this — eventually I’m going to spend a whole day reading all my favourite books’, or ‘eventually I’m going to go out and visit this little museum that’s three hours away that I’ve always wanted to see’.
“Well, what happens for me is, at 71, ‘eventually’ is no longer a word to me. If I want to do something, I try to do it.