Happy and content at the half-century mark

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By Sondra L. Shapiro

It was on one of those glorious warm May days that I decided to play hooky from work and hit the beach with two friends, who were also MIA from their daily responsibilities.

Not a cloud in the sky, 85 degree temps, lots of laughs, topped off by a great book — Joanne Harris’ Chocolat.

Small moments can bring the most joy. Three hard-working, successful women stopping to appreciate life. None of us feeling guilty for doing so. At one point, as if on cue, we all proclaimed, “Today is a gift.”

This attitude is a far cry from the go-getter, guilt-ridden woman I was in my 20s, 30s and 40s.

These days I’m comfortable in my skin — figuratively and literally — no matter that it is somewhat more abundant. Sure, I sometimes feel overworked, but, overall I would describe myself as being happy, a state of being I discovered I share with my over-50 cohorts. The findings of a recent study headed up by Dr. Arthurs Stone of New York’s Stony Brook University, which was published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that after age 50, life perceptions are more positive and feelings of worry or stress decline — regardless of certain life circumstances. Stone and his colleagues found that data from a 2008 Gallup phone survey of over 340,000 Americans confirms earlier reports that overall feelings of well-being improve as people pass middle age.

Who would have thought that we are much happier than 20-year-olds? It seems that looking forward — which we do in our youth — is more stressful than looking back — which we tend to do when we’re older. Living in the moment is the best. But perhaps we need to be a lot older to appreciate those little things that fall by the wayside when we are younger and in more of a hurry.

“The study is important because it compares patterns of response using two distinct methods for measuring well-being,” said Stone. “One is a single measure of global well-being, as in how satisfied are you with your life, and the other a series of measures of positive and negative aspects of emotional well-being, as in how did you feel yesterday.”

Two of the negative emotions, stress and anger, showed declines throughout life. The pattern for worry, another negative emotion, tended to hold steady until about age 50, when it took a sharp decline. Sadness showed a slightly inverted U-pattern over age.

Though there are no conclusive reasons as to why we are happier after reaching the half-century mark, I have my own theories.

Twenty years ago I wouldn’t consider hitting the beach during a “work day.” I would have been too consumed with putting in my time at the office to further my career. I just don’t feel the pressure now. Perhaps it is because I finally realized that when I stop chasing after things, I have time to appreciate my accomplishments. Also, because I’m not frantically trying to cram so much into each day, I am more clearheaded, which allows me to be more efficient, ultimately getting more done.

I also keep my emotions in check — well most of the time anyway. Rarely do I react to situations; rather I take a step back and think about the proper response.

When I look back on even the most disturbing events of my life, it’s almost like seeing them through a slightly out of focus lens; the sharp edges are gone. Those situations don’t seem as bad or as important as they did when they first happened. I have a clearer perspective. I have learned to not sweat the little things and to use my life’s worth of experiences to methodically solve the big problems, or accept the times when they can’t be solved.

These days I appreciate the company of my husband and 20-year-old kitty, Falene, and just hanging out with my friends.

I have more attainable goals: Instead of dreaming of writing that great novel, I’m just happy to get this column written by deadline.

Though I still watch my calorie intake, I’m not as restrictive. I give in to those urges for that double-chocolate cookie that my favorite bakery sells. After that last bite, I never feel guilty. In fact, I feel rather proud that I put that cookie into proper perspective. It’s not going to make me fat.

I have a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment after a session on my treadmill each night. I no longer feel the urge to push myself with those grueling workouts, as long as I am healthy. What’s a wrinkle here and bulge there, anyway?

Little things rock my world these days. As a piping plover monitor in my “second” town, I was overjoyed when I discovered a pair of plovers engaged in their mating ritual. What a rare experience. I couldn’t imagine a greater thrill.

I am never going to be famous, or rich — though in my 20 and 30s those aspirations took up so much space in my head.

In those days, I had an entire mountain to climb. These days from my vantage point at the summit, I am content and satisfied when I reflect on the track of my journey. I give myself a pat on the back and want nothing more than to appreciate what I have, right now. I am the healthiest I will ever be and am surrounded by the people I love most.

And so, this day at the beach, we three girlfriends laughing about our “old lady hands,” could not be swayed from our good mood even as we were momentarily distracted by a very buff, bikini clad 20-something, who was so obviously strutting her stuff. Who would want to be her anyway, with all the stress and pressure to be so perfect?

Nope, I was just too happy that I didn’t feel guilty about playing hooky from a day at the office.

Sondra Shapiro is the executive editor of the Fifty Plus Advocate. Contact her at sshapiro.fiftyplusadvocate@verizon.net or read more at fiftyplusadvocate.com.