When David Brooks penned a NYT op-ed titled Why Elders Smile, he was not hypothesizing that elders are at the happiest point in the arc of their lives. Anyone who reaches a certain age knows that age brings loss: of family, friends, health, independence, self, and eventually of life itself. So what does Brooks discover to be behind those smiles?
We owe to Aristotle the realization that a good person is much more than one who follows moral rules. A good person is one who is competent at the social roles one assumes: provider, parent, citizen, friend, philosopher. With age, diligent people gain increasing competence in their chosen roles.
With age comes increasing perspective, the ability to deal with a situation up close, with appropriate emotional intensity, while simultaneously maintaining a detached view useful for assigning appropriate significance. The real trick here is to maintain sufficient emotional intensity with age, and not to become too detached.
With age comes a lightness of being that allows us to take long even strides over the uneven terrain of life. We have learned not to sweat the small stuff, not to become too invested in specific outcomes, to treat disappointment as mere bumps in the road.
With age comes the ability to balance the competing demands of our many social roles. We acquire such wisdom through living. The play book we follow is written in our history of similar experience, both lived and observed.
With age comes heightened instinct, intuitions that are accessible at deeper levels of consciousness than mere experience recall. We develop a heightened sense of what others are thinking and feeling, an intuition for how events will unfold. Even as the aging brain makes it more difficult to think analytically, we are compensated by easier insight.
Many people of a certain age reflect: If only I knew then what I know now. Perhaps the most enlightened goal of a culture may be to infuse the young with elder wisdom, to implant hundred-year-hearts in the still young bodies.