Age, Wealth and Happiness: Accessing the Wisdom of the Ages

By David Geller   |   June 18, 2012

Before reading further, please take a minute to consider and answer this question:  Who is happier, the average 40, 50, or 70-year-old American? 

Studies reveal the surprising answer is the 70-year-old is happier.  How can that be?  What do 70 year-olds possess in greater abundance than people in their 40’s and 50’s?  Certainly not better health.  As we age, most of us experience increasing aches and pains and often serious health problems.  Is it because septuagenarians have more money?  Probably not.  When we retire, we lose our steady paycheck and our disposable income often declines.   So, if it’s not better health and more money, what is their secret?

What allows 70-year-olds to live more meaningful and satisfying lives – and how might the rest of us get to that happy place sooner rather than later?

So far, research has not offered any definitive answers, but I have developed a working hypothesis:  the secret to being happier at age 70 may be wisdom.  By the time people reach age 70, many have learned to live their lives based on several fundamental truths.  They have internalized some key life lessons that have made them happier. 

  • Time, not money, is our scarcest resource.  When we are younger, we often feel burdened by our many responsibilities, probably none more compelling than our duty to earn a living.  We feel pulled in multiple directions and stretched thin, often sacrificing the things we want to do for those we feel we have to do.  It often takes years (and for some, millions of dollars) for us to realize that while money is important, time is the one resource we can never renew.  What different choices might we make if we could integrate this wisdom into our lives now?
  • Relationships make us happy.  We already know that having close relationships with family and friends is make life worth living.  Everything else – money, work, health, possessions, status – can distract us from focusing on and spending time with the people who bring us joy.  Maybe these happy 70-year-olds have figured out how to lessen the distractions in their lives.
  • Making a difference in the lives of others pays handsome dividends.  When we share our time, talents or treasure to help a family member, friend or cause we care about, we often receive multiples of what we give.  While the prospect of giving may run counter to our capitalist, money-centered economy, study after study bears out that it really may be better to give than receive.  If we are happier if we focus on how to expand our influence to help enhance the lives of others rather than focusing on our next big personal triumph, perhaps 70-year-olds have figured out how to do this more often.

Life is about creating memories and legacies.  We can get a much bigger payoff when we focus our resources on experiences that create shared memories rather than acquiring additional stuff.  Since each of us only has only 168 hours per week, how much time do we actually have to enjoy all the things we own?  How much time do we spend cleaning our large homes, organizing all the stuff we have, or even quietly regretting some of our purchases?  Perhaps the happy 70-year-olds may have come to realize the truth in the saying “everything you own owns a piece of you,” and have chosen to focus less on stuff and more on people.

We feel more alive when we are engaged in meaningful, productive activities that allow us to learn new things.  Most of us feel at our best when we are learning, growing, and struggling to overcome a worthwhile challenge.  Rather than rest on their laurels, the happiest people seem to be on a life-long quest for new opportunities for growth and learning.   Could that be part of what makes 70-year-olds happier?

The good news is that many of us are already aware of these insights long before our 70th birthday.  Our challenge is keeping these ideas top of mind, and taking small steps each week to put this timeless wisdom into practice in our daily lives.  Ask yourself this question:  If becoming happier now is one of your goals, what small step could you take during the next week to incorporate just one of these lessons into your own life?

About the Author

CEO David Geller co-founded the firm in 1991 and led the creation of Behavioral Wealth Management. Recognized on numerous prestigious "top financial advisor" lists, David is an in-demand speaker for professional groups and JOYN workshops. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post.

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