Several recent and very serious studies have reported that people over fifty – men as well as women – are consistently happier than those in their twenties and thirties. This is no surprise to me. Since I began writing about women in their fifties, sixties and seventies I have become more and more convinced that we like being where we are in our lives and don’t want to go back to the stress, insecurities, and self-doubt of earlier decades. While all of us would like to be stronger and fresher, few of us would like to be literally younger.
This only seems counterintuitive if you buy into the pervasive ageism fueled by youth obsession that pervades the world we are nevertheless happy in. The women I meet are delighting in rejecting the backward looking mindset and focusing on (to paraphrase the song from “The King and I”) “the beautiful and new things I am learning about me, day by day.” The range of things to learn about ourselves is now as wide as it hasn’t been since adolescence. So much about our bodies, our thinking, our relationships is up for reconsideration. And the more we revise, the more we uncover new aspects of our selves, the more we discover that we are not who we were when we were younger. One of these aspects, for many women, is sexuality. In my new book How We Love Now, I report on countless women who are exploring new dimensions of their erotic life. Many are also enriching their emotional life by finding what I call the New Intimacy with their family, friends, and partners.
The challenge of this stage of life is not to “get over getting older” but to get to know ourselves in this new context. Who is this person who hears herself say “I don’t care what people think anymore” and loves the sound of it? Who is giving up high heels and belts simply because they are uncomfortable? Who is questioning the nature of her relationships and the meaning of her work? Who is ready to try some new and totally out-of-character experiences on for size? Who know that life and death is no metaphor, but forges on?
Older is almost irrelevant to these questions – except for the last one. And certainly health and financial crises can blot out the sun for any of us. But if we are lucky, there is a lot to celebrate.
A few years ago, acclaimed actress Helen Mirrin, who is in her sixties, told More how she experienced aging. “When you’re 16, you think 28 is so old! And then you get to 28 and it’s fabulous. You think, then, what about 42? Ugh! And then 42 is great. As you reach each age, you gain the understanding and experience you need to deal with it and enjoy it.”
The more years we have dealt with, the more confident we are that we can cope with what the next ones bring. The better we know ourselves, the more authentic and grounded we become. The more we free ourselves from past expectations and limitations, the more daring we become. The more we surprise ourselves, the more fun we have. No wonder we are finding this new stage of life so happy and fulfilling.