Sat09202014

Spiritual Life

U-shaped curve: Life satisfaction proves greatest in youth – and old age

My friend calls them “organ recitals” – those all-too-frequent occasions when our conversations with one another end up being nothing more than a depressing recap of bodily aches and pains. Although by no means restricted to one age group or another, experience would suggest that they’re more commonly heard among the elderly.

As it turns out, though, this kind of gloomy chitchat belies the fact that most older Americans are actually quite optimistic about their future. Even about their health.

According to a survey conducted by USA Today, United Healthcare and the National Council on Aging:

• More than 80 percent of those over 60 agree with the statement, “I have a strong sense of purpose and passion about my life and my future.”

• 92 percent report that they manage their stress levels well.

• 80 percent are confident in their ability to manage their health conditions on their own, reducing their need to see a doctor.

But perhaps most surprisingly, more than 75 percent of those aged 60-69 – and a majority of those 70 and older – expect their quality of life, including their mental and physical health, to stay the same or get better.

Get better? Conventional wisdom would say either these folks have no idea what it means to get old or they’re on to something we youngins need to know about. What gives?

“When I called a couple of my favorite gerontologists to help me puzzle this out,” writes New York Times blogger Paula Span in her response to the survey, “they weren’t really surprised; social scientists have known for years that older people, freed from the midlife stresses of work and child rearing, become happier. They call it a U-shaped curve: life satisfaction is greatest in people’s youth and then again in old age.”

Although Span cites a number of variables that might have skewed the survey, she also acknowledges that “older people are better able to regulate their emotions, to focus on sources of pleasure, to maintain equanimity.”

This ability to “maintain equanimity” is just one of many factors involved in reducing stress, which by itself accounts for anywhere between 60 to 90 percent of all doctor visits. It stands to reason then that someone who’s feeling less stressed might also feel – and justifiably – that his or her health is holding steady, maybe even improving.

Of course, it would be a shame if we had to wait to slip through life’s U-shaped curve before gaining the confidence that our health might actually improve over time. Isn’t there something we could be doing now, regardless of age?

For increasing numbers of people – old, young and middle-aged – the ticket to living a healthier, stress-free life is meditation. Others, including myself, are finding that a prayer-based approach works best, relying less on the human mind to gain a sense of mental serenity and more on the stress-reducing, health-inducing assurances conveyed by the divine Mind.

“Let all that I am wait quietly before God (Mind),” it reads in one of my favorite Psalms, “for my hope is in him” (Ps. 62:5).

Whether one’s expectation of improving health is a natural by-product of no longer having to deal with the stresses and strains of children and work, or something a bit more spiritually grounded, the benefits are undeniable. As this fact becomes more widely known, perhaps we’ll have fewer organ recitals and more symphonies of health to look forward to in the future.

Eric Nelson, a Christian Science practitioner, is media and legislative spokesman for Christian Science in Northern California. For more information, visit www.norcalcs.org.

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