What 90-somethings regret most
© Cristian Newman on Unsplash
I interviewed the oldest people I know. Their responses contradict popular research about aging and happiness.
My preconceptions about older people first began to crumble when one of my congregants, a woman in her 80s, came into my office seeking pastoral care. She had been widowed for several years but the reason for her distress was not the loss of her husband. It was her falling in love with a married man. As she shared her story with me over a cup of tea and Kleenex, I tried to keep a professional and compassionate countenance, though, internally, I was bewildered by the realization that even into their 80s, people still fall for one another in that teenage, butterflies-in-the-stomach kind of way.
One of the strange and wonderful features of my job as a minister is that I get to be a confidant and advisor to people at all stages of life. I've worked with people who are double and even triple my age. Experience like this is rare; our economic structure and workforce are stratified, and most people are employed within their own demographics. But because I'm a minister in a mainline denomination with an aging base, the people I primarily interact with are over the age of 60. I came into my job assuming that I, a Korean-American woman in my mid-30s, would not be able to connect with these people - they're from a completely different racial and cultural background than me. It did not take long for me to discover how very wrong I was.
We all have joys, hopes, fears and longings that never go away no matter how old we get. Until recently, I mistakenly associated deep yearnings and ambitions with the energy and idealism of youth. My subconscious and unexamined assumption was that the elderly transcend these desires because they become more stoic and sage-like over time. Or the opposite: they become disillusioned by life and gradually shed their vibrancy and vitality.
When I initially realized that my assumptions might be wrong, I set out to research the internal lives of older people. Who really were they, and what had they learned in life? Using my congregation as a resource, I interviewed several members in their 90s, with a pen, notebook, a listening ear and a promise to keep everyone anonymous. I did not hold back, asking them burning questions about their fears, hopes, sex lives or lack thereof. Fortunately, I had willing participants. Many of them were flattered by my interest, as America tends to forget people as they age.
I began each conversation by asking if they had any regrets. By this point, they'd lived long enough to look at life from multiple angles so I knew their responses would be meaningful. Most of their regrets revolved around their families. They wished relationships, either with their children or between their children, turned out differently. These relational fractures, I could see on their faces, still caused them much pain and sorrow. One of my interviewees has two children who haven't seen or spoken to each other for over two decades. She lamented that this, among all the mistakes and regrets she could bring to mind, was the single thing keeping her up at night.
I then moved on to the happiest moments of their lives. Every single one of these 90-something-year-olds, all of whom are widowed, recalled a time when their spouses were still alive and their children were younger and living at home. As a busy young mom and working professional who frequently fantasizes about the faraway, imagined pleasures of retirement, I quickly responded, "But weren't those the most stressful times of your lives?" Yes of course, they all agreed. But there was no doubt that those days were also the happiest.
Their responses intrigued me. They contradicted a well-known article on happiness in The Economist, "The U-bend of Life". The article went viral in 2010 and was a common conversation topic among my family and friends. Its counter-intuitive yet completely reasonable analyses seemed to resonate with my generation.
The theory of the "U-bend" came about as researchers discovered consistent findings from several independent research projects on happiness and well-being around the world. They concluded that happiness, pleasure and enjoyment are most tenuous during the middle ages of life, starting in our 20s with depression peaking at 46 - which the author described as "middle-age-misery". The happiness of youth however, not only returned but was experienced at higher levels in subjects' 70s. Researchers hypothesized that middle-age-misery was due to the overwhelming number of familial, professional and financial demands during these years. Following a happiness dip in middle age, researchers concluded that we become more self-accepting, less ambitious and more mindful of living in the present moment (instead of the future) as we approach our 70s.
My interviewees' responses contradicted the popular "U-bend" theory. Why? Perhaps happiness is more complex than we thought. Maybe our understanding of what makes us happy changes as we age. When we're younger, perhaps we think of happiness as a feeling instead of a state of fulfillment, meaning, or abundance - which my interviewees were associating it with. Regardless, their responses came as a sobering reminder to fully appreciate and soak in these chaotic days of diaper changes, messiness and minimal me-time. They may just end up being my happiest moments.
I was dying to ask if their spouses (of many decades, in most cases) were really the loves of their lives. As it turns out, this was true for some and not for others. In both cases, though, they kept trying to make their marriages work. I got the sense from their responses that after they had children, their marriages became much less important to their happiness than the overall nuclear family dynamic. This focus on the family unit, however, did not mean their sexual and romantic passion vanished. They still longed to be wooed and pursued. They still experienced intense attraction to people who were not their spouses and continue to experience intense attraction for others to this day. Of course, sex becomes more tiresome, as well as masturbation, but their desire for companionship is just as prominent as it was during the height of their youth.
My interviewees' thoughts on beauty and aging were also varied - their physical appearance only mattered insofar as it mattered to them when they were younger. Those who were valued for their good looks or athleticism experienced much more grief in regards to their current bodies than those who derived confidence from qualities that were much less time-fixed. One interviewee, for example, was well-known in her community for being a writer and columnist in local newspapers. When I asked her if she was saddened by her aging appearance, she responded, "Well, I never thought I was pretty to begin with so, no." The ones who did experience greater negative emotions about aging, though, shared that the peak of that grief occurred in their 70s and has diminished since then.
The same woman who told me she wasn't bothered by her aging appearance also shared that she wasn't afraid of death but of dying. I found this to be a profound distinction. She believed in an afterlife, as one might expect given that she belongs to a church. She felt sure that she would, in one way or another, be well taken care of after her time here came to an end. She is still very physically and mentally healthy, so it was that final leg of her journey that worried her. Would she be restricted to a hospital bed, just a mess of tubes and needles? Would she still recognize family and friends? Would she be in constant pain? Being old didn't bother her until it affected the quality of her life in an incredibly detrimental way. In fact, being old, she shared, brought a lot of advantages: more time, more perspective, less hustling to be the best and most successful, and an urgency to strengthen the important relationships in her life.
The radical relationship-based orientation of all my subjects caught me by surprise. As someone entering the height of my career, I expend much more energy on work than on relationships. And when I imagine my future, I envision what I will have accomplished rather than the quality of my interactions with those who are most important to me. These 90-something-year-olds emphasize the opposite when they look back on their lives. Their joys and regrets have nothing to do with their careers, but with their parents, children, spouses and friends. Put simply, when I asked one person, "Do you wish you accomplished more?", he responded, "No, I wished I loved more."
My conversations challenged me. I certainly won't be giving up my job to hang out with my family more because I also recognize that satisfying careers and financial stability are great sources of fulfillment - which, in turn, affect family well-being. But these different perspectives helped me focus on what really matters in the face of competing responsibilities and priorities. That sermon really does not have to be the best sermon in the world when my son is starving for my attention. My husband really does not need to get the highest-paying job he can find if that means I can spend more time with him.
However, the biggest impact they left on me was not reprioritization but being okay with aging. I confess that prior to my conversations, I had an intense fear about growing old. This, I realize, was what motivated me to begin this research in the first place. I assumed the elderly lost their vibrancy and thirst for life. That couldn't be further from the truth. They still laugh like crazy, fall in love like mad and pursue happiness fiercely.