Why Older People Managed to Stay Happier Through the Pandemic

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One of the few investigations to find no age-related differences in well-being, posted last year, was focused on 226 young and older adults living in the Bronx. In this, New York’s most underserved borough, older people often live with their children and grandchildren, helping with meals, school pickup, babysitting, in effect acting as co-parents. No “age bump” in emotional well-being for them, the researchers found, in part, they concluded, because “the sample was somewhat ‘more stressed’ than average levels nationwide.”

Even with that crucial distinction noted, these studies bolster a theory of emotional development and aging formulated by Dr. Carstensen that psychologists have been debating for years. This view holds that, when people are young, their goals and motives are focused on gaining skills and taking chances, to prepare for opportunities the future may hold. You can’t know if you’ll be any good running a business, or onstage, unless you give it a real chance. Doing grunt work for little money; tolerating awful bosses, bad landlords, needy friends: the mental obstacle course of young adulthood is no less taxing for being so predictable.

After middle age, people become more aware of a narrowing time horizon and, consciously or not, begin to gravitate toward daily activities that are more inherently pleasing than self-improving.

They’re more prone to skip the neighborhood meeting for a neighborhood walk to the local bar or favorite bench with a friend. They have accepted that the business plan didn’t work out, that their paintings were more fit for the den than for a gallery. They have come to accept themselves for who they are, rather than who they’re supposed to become. Even those who have lost their jobs in this tragic year, and face the prospect of re-entering the job market — at least they know their capabilities, and what work is possible.

These differences will be important to keep in mind in the near future, if only to blunt a widening generational divide, experts say. A pandemic that began by disproportionately killing the elderly has also savagely turned on the young, robbing them of normal school days, graduations, sports, first jobs, or any real social life — and shaming them, often publicly, if they tried to have one. Now, in a shrinking economy, they’re at the back of the vaccine line.

“I think the older generation now, as much as it’s been threatened by Covid, they’re beginning to say, ‘My life is not nearly as disrupted as my children’s or grandchildren’s,’” Dr. Charles said, “and that is where our focus on mental well-being should now turn.”