How can seniors be happy? We know that difficult times, followed by death, lie ahead. We have already lost friends and closest family members. We have every reason to be unhappy, yet polls consistently show that seniors tend to be happier than the young. As one headline puts it: “Happiness Grows With Age, Researchers Say.”
Donna and I have been exploring what philosophers have had to say about happiness over the centuries — something we hadn’t taken a close look at since college days. We’ve read Darrin McMahon’s Happiness, A History, and lately we’ve been listening to Fr. Joesph Koterski’s lectures on Aristotle’s Ethics, part of the Great Courses series. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve set us off on an excursion into Epicurean philosophy.
We’ve found a great deal of common sense among the ancients, and have come to suspect that many seniors have reached the same conclusions they did, some through study perhaps, but most through life experience.
Let’s take Aristotle, who reasoned that happiness is in fact the purpose of life. Seniors understand this truth. For decades, they have worried about jobs, promotions, performance reviews, and their children’s college prospects. Some have been through wrenching divorces. Now these things are in the past, and seniors know that the time has come for some peace and quiet, and for enjoying life.
Aristotle taught that the way to happiness lay in developing and practicing certain virtues. Theologians have focused on what they call the four cardinal virtues, which were also mentioned by Plato. These are courage, justice (giving everyone his or her rightful due), temperance, and prudence.
Seniors know they must have courage to face the challenges of age, and time and again we have seen friends and family display just that quality in dealing with a health crisis or the death of a loved one. We know that we are happier when we treat others fairly, and that temperance is key in maintaining our health. We’ve learned that prudent decision-making, taking into account all relevant factors and considering the advice of others, is essential to financial security. With “financial advisers” trying to sell us everything from variable annuities to reverse mortgages, we need prudence.
We know these things, but of course it’s easy to slip. Fear can get the best of us. Emotion can push us into unwise decisions, and after that, temperance can go out the window. But deep down, we understand intuitively what it takes to be happy.
Aristotle listed other virtues beyond the basic four, including friendliness, liberality, magnanimity, and patience. We know full well that if we practice these too, our lives will be happier.
Even though we know intuitively where the keys to happiness lie, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves from time to time of what the ancients had to say on the subject. Donna and I will be doing that at Common Sense for Seniors.