Being happy as an old person is a problem I deal with every day. I spend a lot of time breaking it down into easily understandable bites, for purposes of counseling my unhappy older patients, and easily implementable changes, to help them recover.
A caveat is that this is just my experience as one primary care doctor in one community. There's obviously a lot of diversity out there.
First, you have to avoid the two big traps: social isolation and lack of exercise.
There's something about our individualistic American mythos that leads people to believe that when retired, if they have their own dwelling that's paid for, and they don't have to rely on anyone else, they can just sit in inside all day to achieve a major, noble goal. That's nice, but it doesn't work out that way. We need a tribe. We need people to see every day.
You see this sometimes when people are unhappy at a job and decide to retire. They leave the hated workplace and start to spend most of their time at home. Then they get depressed, or bored, and realize "retirement's not what it's made out to be." I hear that not infrequently. You see, even if you hate your workplace and coworkers, you still have a structure that requires you to interact with humanity five days a week, and that's important.
As for exercise, you have to move around to age well. It doesn't guarantee a happy old age, but I guarantee you'll suffer if you don't so it.
The barriers are considerable. Hundreds of years ago, when most of us lived on farms, we used to have to exercise in order to stay alive. You had to work the farm to keep it operating, and that was physically strenuous. (Our American diet, by the way, seems to be created to get an adequate number of calories into a farmer.) These days, you have to pay money, spend extra time, and frequently undergo some humiliation to get exercise. So it's an uphill battle.
Putting the above together with some separate observations, here is a list, in descending order, of the happiest older people, based on an intuitively analyzed sample of 500 of them (my patients):
- The happiest older people own their own businesses. They don't have time for me. "Doc, what do I have to do? I have to get back to work." Having your own palette for creation seems to be part of it. Business owners also are compelled to interact with people, and they have meaningful activity, with strong rewards, every day.
- The second happiest are people who live with or very near to their grandchildren. They are quiet about it, but they radiate happiness and contentment. It seems to be about the most fulfilling and meaningful thing at an older age. You avoid stagnation and enjoy generativity, as the psychologist Erikson postulated.
- I don't golf, but people who golf are happier than people who don't. I can't explain this, but golf appears to provide a moderately addicting high, probably through some kind of intermittent peak performance experience. (Intermittent rewards are strong behavior modifiers, behaviorally speaking.) Golf also clearly helps older people avoid the two big traps of aging, social isolation and physical inactivity. So maybe that's it.
Any more insights? Email me at email@example.com.