Life lessons on happiness from older people
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“Mann khush hai toh sab khush hai (If your mind is happy, everything is fine),” says 90-year-old Jwala Prasad.
Jwala should know, having seen almost a century of life. He migrated from Haryana to Delhi to build a better life for his family. With 4 children and 5 grandchildren, he spent more than 50 years of love, laughter, fights, struggles, and support with his wife, who died last year. Now at the age of 90, he has only one thing to say about happiness. “Agar mann khush hai toh khushi hi khushi hai, agar mann pareshan hai toh koi khushi nahi hai. (If your mind is happy, everything is happy, if your mind is troubled, there’s no happiness).”
Happiness is an ever-changing concept. It changes as we grow older. The general perception is that happiness declines as we grow older. The idea of old age is a harrowing one. Not having as much energy as in your youth, not being able to eat everything you want, and taking at least one medication regularly to be well.
Declining physical health and cognitive abilities can make anyone believe that people in their 20s are happier than people in their 50s. It is not a rare assumption. Just the wrong one.
Research suggests that aging might just be the key to happiness. Studies upon studies have found that happiness increases with age. As we get older, our well-being and emotional regulation improve (Stretton, Schweizer, and Dalgleish, 2022). This is called the ‘paradox of aging.’ While old age leads to many losses, it also seems to improve emotional well-being.
Erikson’s stages of psychological development show similar results. However, it says that only the successful completion of each stage can allow people to earn a virtue that helps them lifelong. As per the theory, each person goes through 8 conflicts at different points in their lives. People between the ages of 40 to 65 face the conflict of generativity vs. stagnation. Only the people who focus on their families and career, have a sense of unity with their partners and contribute to the world by actively participating in their communities feel accomplished and successfully complete this stage.
While research and theories tell us happiness increases with age, we wanted to know if people feel the same way.
So, we decided to ask those who have lived half a century of life their secrets to happiness. After living for almost five decades, what have their experiences told them about happiness?
The changing meaning of happiness
Renu Golan Sharma, 59, a retired Senior Assistant General Manager at Air India, believes that age improves happiness.
“Happiness is a state of mind. It doesn’t last long. It’s the joyfulness of heart and mind that stays. When I was young, getting a compliment made me happy, or getting a salary hike made me happy. But as I grew older, the meaning of happiness changed. Now, seeing my daughter happy makes me happy. Contributing to society makes me happy. Being healthy and not having a backache makes me happy. And this kind of happiness doesn’t go away. It stays with me.”
Renu is not the only one who feels this way about happiness. Meenu Nagpal, 57, a Senior Engineer at Indian Railways, echoes the same sentiments. “Growing older, the definition of happiness becomes simpler.
My happiness comes from my children’s happiness. It comes from being able to help someone and not the material things.”
With age, we learn to find happiness in our loved ones’ happiness. We start recognizing the beauty and simplicity of life. Money or material things start losing their influence on our happiness. Subhash Hooda, 53, Tutor and Entrepreneur, believes that after a point in life, we reach a saturation level. “When you reach that level, material things or money no longer make you happy. And this is what happened to me. Now, only doing things that I can do comfortably makes me happy now.” Subhash finds happiness in learning different subjects and teaching his students.
For Geetha M, 50, a Scientist, Psychotherapist, and Counselor, her biggest happiness lies in helping people heal. “When I was young, helping others made me happy. Now, as a therapist, helping my clients heal through their emotional wounds makes me happy.”
Happiness is often seen as the prize at the end of a quest. However, the quest is never-ending. Geetha often receives messages from young people asking her how to achieve happiness. She has only one answer to this question. “I understand every human being is seeking happiness as a final destination. Unfortunately, it is not so. Happiness is a journey because being happy is a decision you make every day. So, make that decision,” says Geetha.
Regrets and happiness
A life well-lived may come with its share of regrets. Research tells us that having more regrets results in less life satisfaction and, ultimately, less happiness (Sijtsema, Zeelenberg, & Lindenberg, 2021). But the people we talked to disagreed. According to them, regrets are painful, but all you have to do is accept and learn from them to be happy.
Meenu narrates her biggest regret that taught her one of the most important lessons of her life. “I was very young back then. It was a rainy day, and I was standing outside my home with my friends. That’s when we saw an uncle slip down the road badly. And we laughed and laughed. The same night, my father came home from the office and slipped in front of our gate. It took him a year to fully recover from the injuries.”
“That day, I learned never to laugh at anybody. There was nothing to laugh
about when that uncle fell. But it only dawned upon me when I saw my father injured and on bed rest for a year. And once I learned this lesson, I let the regret pass on. I took the power away and acknowledged that one mistake doesn’t mean I don’t deserve happiness,” says Meenu.
For Subhash, his biggest regret is not getting the opportunity to follow his dream. “I was intelligent, and I wanted to be a doctor. But our financial condition didn’t allow it. My father didn’t have much money, and he had 4 other kids to raise. For years, I carried the weight of that lost opportunity with me. Ultimately I decided that I won’t let this happen to my children. So I worked hard and made sure my son didn’t have to go through what I did.”
Regrets can be all-consuming. They can be painful and heartbreaking, but they are also what makes life meaningful and happy. They are the sign of a healthy mind and proof that you’re actually living and not just surviving.
Lessons to pass on
Is there anything they have learned from their experiences and would like to pass on to their younger generation?
“Stop chasing the mirage,” says Geetha, “because mirages are best seen in deserts and dry lands, and you are definitely not in one. See the life next to you and within you, instead.”
Subhash believes that the relations we build and nurture are what matters the most. “Live in the present. Understand the value of your relationships. Nurture them. Put effort into them. Otherwise, they won’t last long,” he says.
“Don’t give up. Life can be tough, but don’t give up. Remember your mistakes and learn from them. But forgive yourself and keep moving forward. Let yourself stumble. Let your steps falter. But don’t stop walking. Stay attached to your roots. Enjoy what you have,” says Renu.
And while you are living, nurturing your relationships, and achieving your goals, don’t forget to be kind. “You will hardly ever hear people say that they should have accomplished more. But you will hear many people say they should’ve loved more and shown kindness more. So be kind and love freely,” adds Meenu.
No matter the age or the work these people do, they all have a common message. Surviving is easy. Living and living happily, however, takes effort. So, love more, live more, and be kind to yourself and others. That’s the secret to living a happy life. And as Jwala says, “Be at peace with yourself. If you are peaceful and your mind is happy, everything is fine.”