American happiness just hit a new low. Don’t blame your parents

Lately I’ve been looking forward to turning 60 and celebrating with a slug of strong black coffee, the way I once aspired to turn 21 with a rum and Coke. Why? Because I’m retiring? I wish.

No, it’s the fact that, according to Gallup’s worldwide happiness rankings released March 19, I’ll join the ranks of some of the happiest people in the world: Americans over 60.

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Admittedly, I don’t have a shot at Gallup’s all-ages happiness leader board unless I can somehow become Nordic. The most serene people on Earth are the Finns, Danes, Icelanders and Swedes. (So much for Nordic noir. The sun never sets on happiness up there.)

As a whole, our once-merry Yankee-Doodle country has fallen off the top 20 list entirely. We’re at No. 23, well below such jolly places as Slovenia and Kuwait.

But American olds buck the national trend. We are in the top 10 for our age group! Which makes me, well, happy, that I’m not among the dread American youngs.

Poor dears, Americans under 30 are way down on the list of good-time Charlies now, coming in after Dominicans, at No. 62. Evidently, they’re tense and sad, tossing and turning over things such as America’s leadership in the world and the U.S. economy.

Big mistake, though understandable. Maybe they just haven’t hung around long enough to know what bad leadership and a bad economy really looks like.

Those of us with 60 in our sights — coming or going — recall distinctly the four years during which the United States was led by the man historians rank the worst president in our history. The cannabis we use is evidently too weak to induce the powerful amnesia kids enjoy today.

Many of us are also “old enough to remember” the 18% inflation of 1980. President Joe Biden’s current (and probably dropping) 3.15% seems just fine in comparison.

And speaking of “just fine,” one thing you can achieve by about age 60 is a kind of tranquil indifference. Though Gallup doesn’t ask about it directly, it’s the real secret to happiness. The real bliss.

Does indifference sound like a downer, like apathy? It shouldn’t in many, even most, cases. It’s great. As you grow up, you care less how rich you are, how good at sports, how promising in the field of swimsuit modeling.

You move out beyond winning and losing, to a place that’s filled with word games and wildflowers and cold waffles and divorce.

We olds still possess bits and pieces of relationships and careers and muscle tone, some of which could command a hefty price at life’s “Antiques Roadshow” and some of which have turned out to be lovable junk. And it’s all just fine. Like 3.15% inflation.

It’s the post-young, pre-old years that are taxing. “As we get into our 30s and 40s, we’ve achieved [many of our goals],” Jonathan Rauch, who published “The Happiness Curve,” told the Guardian. But “the same ambition that made us status hungry makes us hungry for more status. We’re on the hedonic treadmill.”

With age, a lovely who-cares-ness attaches to metaphorical — and, for Pete’s sake, literal — treadmills.

“You hear people say, ‘I don’t feel the need to check those boxes anymore’ or ‘I don’t care that much what other people think,’” Rauch says.

You also get more ironic, which Generation X, the oldest of whom are 59, is known for too. But now irony doesn’t mean donning kooky leisure suits; it’s a type of amused equanimity.

Then there’s the other big score of later adulthood: friends. According to Gallup, olds were more likely than youngs to answer “yes” when asked if they have a friend they can call when in need.

The correspondence between social time and happiness is clear. The more time Americans spend with family and friends, the more contentment they report — and the less stress. Our self-reported mood improves with each hour of social time we spend in a day, but olds need just three hours a day of social life to get started on a good mood.

Admittedly, at least some of the ease of older Americans stems from how many of them — nearly 80% of those over 65 — own their homes. Medicare helps, and so does Social Security, a superb form of universal basic income that’s adjusted for inflation.

(Donald Trump — the worst president of all time, for those with cultural memory loss — suggested on CNBC that he’d cut Medicare and Social Security. He’s 77, and the exception that proves the rule that olds are happy people.)

In “Breaking the Age Code,” Becca Levy argues that one key to being happier in old age is to stop worrying about old age. If you remember, for example, that many kinds of cognition actually improve with age, Levy writes, you can savor your enhanced skills. Among these are pattern recognition and the ability to think about thinking, or what’s called “metacognition.” Metacognition allows for detachment from stressful thoughts.

Metacognition as a gateway to DGAF (don’t give a fig)! Thanks, science.

So maybe, as a duty to our country, my cohort should reach out to younger friends and mentor them in our chill. Maybe if we teach them the way of repose they’ll start saying, “I love being around the seniors! They keep me old!”

Or maybe they’ll just keep on judging us for our graying hair and dated jokes. But that’s just fine. Because we don’t care what they think.

Virginia Heffernan is a regular contributor to Wired and writes a newsletter, Magic and Loss, at virginiaheffernan.substack.com.