What Is the Secret to Aging Gracefully and Happily?

“To know how to grow old is the master-work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living.” —Henri-Frédéric Amiel, 1874.

As some of you may know, I’m currently enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Pennsylvania in positive psychology, the science of human well-being. A few weeks ago, I was in my classes at Penn when I heard the alarming statistic that every day for the next 18 years, 10,000 boomers will turn 65. I started googling around about boomers and came across even more startling statistics: study after study indicates that boomers are the most depressed cohort of all age groups. The women boomers, in particular, are unhappy. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1999 and 2004, rates of suicide increased by 20 percent for 45-to-54-year-olds, a far greater increase than that experienced in nearly every other age group. Among women who were 45-to-54-year-olds, the increase was a staggering 31 percent.

This isn’t surprising, I suppose, coming from the generation that worshiped youth, wealth, and themselves all throughout their lives. But as they age, how can they lead happy and healthy lives? Is it too late? I think that they can, but only if they learn from the generation directly above them–the Silent Generation, which is the least depressed age group in the U.S. That, at least, is my argument in this article.

The Silent generation is quite remarkable. They were born during the trying years between the Great Depression and World War Two. They were behind the sexual revolution and the women of that generation launched the second wave of feminism. I interviewed one of the women from that generation, Ellen Cole:

Ellen Cole, a 71-year-old Harvard-trained psychologist and professor at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y., is among the younger members of that older age group, the relatively small but remarkable “Silent generation.” Cole is interested in how the lessons of her generation can apply to boomer women. “We pre-baby boomers might have wisdom to impart to those close on our heels who [have begun] to turn 65,” she wrote in the Retiring But Not Shy (2012), a book about how feminists are adjusting to their post-career lives…

In 1953, when the younger Silents, Cole’s peers, were still kids, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex was published. By the time they were 18—entering into college—it was 1960, the same year that the Pill was officially approved by the FDA. As they were leaving college, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out, which, more than anything else, officially launched second-wave feminism as a mass cultural movement. Friedan interviewed suburban housewives of her generation and found that many of them were dissatisfied with their lives as homemakers. Three years later, Friedan teamed up with some other feminists to form the National Organization for Women.

Cole was in grad school at Harvard when the book came out. “It turned my world upside down. Before that, my ex-husband wouldn’t let me drive the car we got for a wedding present, and I never thought twice about it. After that there were conscious-raising groups galore,” she tells me.

Of course, the boomer women benefited from feminism, and, like the Silent women, they defined themselves in large part through their careers. Yet, boomer women are incredibly depressed and their rates of suicide are alarmingly high and on the rise, while the Silent women seem to be aging gracefully and well. What is the secret of the Silent women? Can the boomers learn from them?

This brings us back to Cole and her generation of women. Many of them have turned 70 or are on the cusp of it. For nearly two years, Cole has been working with a colleague and childhood friend, Jane Giddan, to find out how those septuagenarian women are faring, and they plan on turning their research into a book.

According to a 2002 American Geriatrics Society study of people aged 65 to 100, “More than 50 percent of participants felt it was an expected part of aging to become depressed, to become more dependent, to have more aches and pains, to have less ability to have sex, and to have less energy.” Cole wanted to find the exceptions—the ones for whom aging went well.

“Seventy is a major milestone for women—a wake up call,” Cole says. She would disagree with Shakespeare’s designation of old age as a “second childhood.” Rather, “it’s a fabulously rich period of life.” In a blog post, she wrote, “I’m tickled to think of myself as an old lady.” At 70, Cole says, women start thinking about how they want to spend the rest of their lives. It’s the age at which, according to Pew, most women think “old age” begins.

Bringing 70-year-old women into small groups, Cole and Giddan started having conversations with them about old age, becoming grandmothers, leaving careers behind, their husbands. They started a website called 70candles.com, where other women from around the world could post their stories and concerns about getting old. The two were after the secrets of aging gracefully—of living the good life until the very end. In the process, Cole has learned several lessons that dovetail with the broader psychological research about aging.

From research in psychology and other fields–and from the work Cole is doing–the key to aging gracefully and happily seems to lie in at least three factors: 1) working into old age rather than retiring 2) finding love and community and 3) accepting old age. I elaborate further on these in my piece (in particular, the stories of “Ellen Keller,” “Carol,” and the women from Okinawa, Japan are models of good aging that I discuss).

What do you think the secret to aging well is?