There is a joke about an unusual celebration in heaven. There are rarely celebrations in heaven. The uncommon merriment is brought about by the first Maltese person entering heaven. And the rarity of that event is because Maltese are always complaining.
The saying is that we will complain in heaven (ingergru fil gena) and they will not let us in. Apart from the constant litany of complaints – and the Maltese have the tendency of assigning the cause of all complaints to either politics or the economy – how happy are Maltese?
Worldwide, there is a trend for older adults to report being happier than any other age groups. A recent 2016 report looking at happiness from The National Centre for Family Research, authored by Angela Abela with her colleagues and researcher Allson Zammit Said, found a similar trend.
Happiness starts to increase from a low for those aged 18 to 35, and peaks for those 61-80 (two results reported.) In the Maltese population, being in a relationship, especially a married one, is clearly associated with higher life satisfaction. But if we separate the genders, what we find is that among singles, young women in their late 20s and older women in the late 70s expressed highest life satisfaction. But the trend for both genders is that happiness is lowest at younger ages and peaks during older adulthood.
Happy people live longer – happy countries have higher life expectancy. Zoologists have also documented that happy orangutans are living longer. It would seem that happiness is an important aspect of life. With older adults there is a conspiracy to be happy. Not only do happy people live longer but older adults are more likely to become happier with age.
What makes us older adults so happy?
In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz documents that the secret for happiness is not having a great choice or achieving your goals and dreams. No. Happiness comes from accepting what you have, being happy with the choices that you made. The strange puzzle is that having more choices makes us less happy.
The best utilisation of your energies is to accept the changes and assume that you are destined to be here. Wherever “here” is
This is the paradox. And it does not matter what those choices are. Which is why Daniel Gilbert’s cheerfully engaging book Stumbling On Happiness is so good. The argument that it is not choices that make us happy but our acceptance of the choices we make has generated a lot of interest.
In psychology, Paul Baltes’s model of selection, optimisation and compensation (SOC) argues that it is essential for successful development that older adults maximize their remaining capacities and minimize their losses. We do not choose to experience losses. But we choose whether or not to accept them.
In 2010 Alex Bishop and his colleagues working with the Georgia Centenarian Study found that happiness among these exceptionally older people was determined by “congruence” which was defined by three statements, one of which was: “I would not change my past life even if I could.”
“Even if I could” is an important admission. If you are getting frailer, becoming more diminished, experiencing the loss of family, friends and colleagues, and facing increasing challenges you have limited options, and none of them include reversing this trend.
The best utilisation of your energies is to accept the changes and assume that you are destined to be here. Wherever “here” is. What psychologists call a positive character-disposition and strong adaptability to the adversities of their life. You are meant to be where you are.
And this attitude starts earlier in life, not learned when you become an older adult. Accepting “bad” choices, painful loss, forgiving people, being content with what you have in terms of money and health is how you tell your body that you are happy where you are and that you not ready to go just yet. You belong here. Even if you could change circumstances, you would choose the same path.
Happiness tells your body that you are still viable, you are important. Happiness is a language of affirmation. When you smile you tell yourself that you are needed.
W.P. Kinsella in his book Shoeless Joe admits that “success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get.”
In Malta we are too concerned with success and our expression of that. That big boat, that large house, that expensive watch. What we should be looking at are vestiges of happiness. Smiles, wrinkles and laugh lines. Perhaps then we might stop trying to hide how we old we look and express our happiness by sharing with those less fortunate.
Perhaps then there will be less merriment in heaven as there will be more of us there.
Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.