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Growing older gets a bum rap. In our youth-obsessed culture, landing on the AARP mailing list can feel like the beginning of the end. But science consistently shows that the opposite is true. After quantifying data on well-being from hundreds of thousands of people in 145 countries, Dartmouth College economist David Blanchflower, PhD, reported in 2021 that most people, regardless of educational, marital, or employment status, experience high levels of happiness when they’re young adults, followed by declining happiness that bottoms out in their late 40s, then, beyond that, steadily increasing happiness.

How to explain this U-shaped happiness curve, wherein seasoned 60-somethings turn out to be as joyful as 18-year-olds? Positive changes in personality, due to growing more socially mature, may contribute to the upswing: Studies of personality traits have shown that over time, we tend to become more emotionally stable, conscientious, and agreeable. Blanchflower, who is 71, theorizes, too, that adults tend to get happier after about age 50 because they’ve become more realistic, having accepted that they aren’t going to be president or the next Aretha Franklin. They may also appreciate gentler pastimes—dancing, swimming, or, in Blanchflower’s case, whiling away a summer afternoon fishing with his grandchildren—than they could at, say, age 45, when they still craved the rush of a rough tennis match or the challenge of a triathlon but mourned the fact that their knees were shot. As people grow older, “they care less about excitement but then find other things they enjoy. Your life patterns change. Activities that didn’t make me happy at 32 made me happy at 52,” Blanchflower says.

And to some extent, getting happier later in life may be hardwired. Researchers have found in observational studies that chimpanzees and orangutans also get cheerier after their midlife shallows. In humans, the neural chemistry that helps people sustain strong relationships, generosity, and religiosity—all well-established hallmarks of fulfilled lives—may strengthen with age. A study of adults aged 18 to 99 published last year in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience found that the release of oxytocin—a neuromodulating brain hormone shown to reduce stress and anxiety and influence positive social behaviors, such as kindness and generosity—increased with age and was positively associated with greater life satisfaction among the study’s older participants.

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All this is great news, and here’s more: There are things you can do to amplify this natural shift. Read on for four ways, backed by hard data and wise souls, to swing upward in your second half.

1. Surf your second wave of success

“When one door closes, another opens, but often, we look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one that has opened for us” is a quote often attributed to Alexander Graham Bell. And according to Arthur C. Brooks, PhD, professor of the practice of public and nonprofit leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School and professor of management practice at the Harvard Business School, one reason people suffer in midlife—staring darkly at their own closed doors—is that they fail to understand why, after successfully striving and innovating for years, they now struggle to come up with the kind of sparky new ideas that earned them rave reviews earlier in their careers. “People freak out because our society is obsessed with youth and the abilities of youth, and because they think they only get one act,” says Brooks, author of From Strength to Strength.

But psychologists have identified two types of intelligence that flourish at different stages of life. The first is fluid intelligence, which helps young adults innovate and solve novel problems and typically peaks in our late 30s. The second is crystallized intelligence, which enables older adults to use the knowledge they’ve acquired in the past to identify patterns and educate others about the intricacies of complex ideas and systems. And it’s important to understand the difference because people who assume that it’s curtains for their career once their fluid intelligence wanes may actually behave in ways that hurt their performance and health. Indeed, controlled clinical studies of so-called negative self-stereotyping have shown that when older adults are presented with negative age stereotypes and apply them to themselves, they perform more poorly on memory tests and even walk more slowly.

According to Brooks, who was president of a think tank before he left to teach at Harvard in his mid-50s, one way to avoid sinking into midlife despair is to step gracefully onto the rising wave of your crystallizing intelligence and notice all the new doors of opportunity it opens. “You don’t need to change jobs or careers,” he insists. “But you can think of it as moving from your cowboy curve onto your coach curve, where you’re now incredibly good at helping other people do amazing things. If you’re a start-up entrepreneur when you’re 30, you can be a venture capitalist when you’re 60. If you’re a star litigator at 35, you can be a managing partner at 65,” he says. “In every profession, there’s a version of it—helping other people to become better at what they do—and it’s really rewarding.”

2. Work like millennials and Gen Zers

“Kids today just don’t know the value of hard work!” is something you’ve probably heard older adults mutter about younger adults. Maybe you’ve muttered it yourself! But that “get off my lawn” attitude, as Bruce Feiler, author of The Search, calls it, fails to appreciate one of the great gifts millennials and Gen Zers have given their elders. When they embarked on their careers, many people now in their 40s, 50s, and 60s initially “got on what I call the ‘should train.’ I should be doing that. I’m expected to follow this path. I had to sell my soul to a company. I had to do what my parents wanted me to do,” says Feiler, 58. But Gen Zers and millennials have led the charge to push employers to provide more fluid schedules and prioritize positive contributions to their industry or community, and they’ve normalized changing jobs frequently to find work that aligns better with their values. These cohorts, Feiler says, have actually “saved work in a lot of ways. We’re lucky to be learning from the younger people around us to embrace change more often. It’s a very positive thing.”

Lesson number one: Follow your passion. The main reason Feiler and many of the boomers and Gen Xers he interviewed for The Search are happier in work than ever before is that “the people who are most fulfilled don’t climb; they dig,” he says. “They do a treasure hunt in their own life by asking themselves, What is the story you have been trying to tell? What is the problem you’ve been trying to solve? What is the source of happiness you had to push aside?

Another path for professionals of a certain age is a so-called portfolio career, in which you work fractionally in several different lanes, says Susan Wilner Golden, author of Stage (Not Age). Diversified careers don’t just help people who have ducked in and out of the workforce to care for children or ailing parents wield the different skills they’ve acquired; they minimize risk if one component disappears (or gets taken over by AI). They also provide older adults greater freedom to choose projects that chime with their core values, says Golden. She co-taught a course on the innovation opportunities needed for longevity and healthy aging at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and, among other gigs that “bring me joy,” has collaborated with Pivotal Ventures, a Melinda French Gates company, on a project to streamline resources for caregivers for older adults, since, as she passionately notes, “over 61 percent of the 53 million unpaid caregivers in the U.S. are women.”

3. Pull a Rodney Dangerfield

And go back to “school.” One major source of bliss later in life is having more freedom, as many empty nesters and retirees finally do, to choose how you spend your time. But golfing every day isn’t optimal. Older adults who spend some of that free time learning new things gain big benefits that can help keep them sharp and independent for years to come. Rachel Wu, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, studies cognitive agility across the life span and reports that the happiest and healthiest older adults don’t do just one favorite leisure activity day after day; instead, they dedicate time to learning new things and stay open to mastering new skills—even though it may give them some temporary, un-fun frustration. After she had adults between the ages of 58 and 86 take three classes simultaneously in subjects such as Spanish, digital photography, and painting, they significantly improved their cognitive scores on memory and attention tests, performing as well as adults 30 years younger. And remarkably, they went on to improve even further—so much so that when Wu and her colleagues gave them follow-up tests a year later, their cognitive scores were on par with undergraduate students’.

“A lot of people just think, Well, I’m 70, and this is what happens to 70-year-olds—your brain starts to slow down,” says Wu. But she has found in her research that once adults begin learning again, through curriculums like the one she designed—many local university extensions, community colleges, and community rec departments offer comparable courses—their cognitive skills in tests measuring attention and working memory (recalling numbers in sequence, for example) eventually may start looking more like younger adults’, and they are likely to report feeling more engaged and capable of learning than they had in years. Flush with the pleasure of meeting new people through their classes and gaining exposure to novel ideas, “they’ll turn to me and say, ‘Oh my God. I was missing out on so much. This is so much fun. I never want to go back to where I was before,’” says Wu. “There is a lot of benefit to having control over your life, but there are also benefits to losing a little bit of control, because then you can [enjoy] exploring the world more.”

If you can take advantage of an intergenerational program in which adults spanning decades study side by side on a university campus, more power to you. Golden enrolled in a yearlong program at Stanford University at 61 and was delighted to discover that she and her classmates, who ranged in age from their 20s to their 80s, “were all at exactly the same stage of life—learning, rethinking what we wanted to do, resetting our life priorities. It was just one of the most rejuvenating experiences you can imagine.”

4. Keep growing on a soul level

According to professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University Daniel Levitin, PhD, gratitude works “at any age” to increase happiness. “Practice gratitude for what you have. This is motivating, alters brain chemistry toward more positive emotions, and oils the pleasure circuits of the brain,” he writes in Successful Aging. You can get a bump from appreciating something as simple as the taste of your morning tea or the sight of a cardinal out your window. Or you can allow gratitude to help you turn a painful setback into an engine of growth. Gladys McGarey, MD, a pioneer of holistic medicine who has lived more than a century, is living proof. She suffered mightily as a child due to undiagnosed dyslexia and was blindsided at age 69 when her husband of 46 years left her for another woman. Nevertheless, as McGarey writes in her new book, The Well-Lived Life, finding the possibility of transformation within every challenge can go a long way toward helping help people her age (and much younger) experience transcendent happiness.

McGarey found herself howling with rage for almost 10 minutes as she drove home from work on the highway one night after her divorce, having “never felt so hurt or humiliated.” But then she just stopped, struck dumb by the realization “that some unknown thing was coming for me”—a future she had never imagined for herself—and it was a gift. (The epiphany was so powerful that McGarey ordered herself a customized “BE GLAD” license plate soon after.) “If you’re stuck, you can choose to stay stuck, or you can choose to start looking for light and love or whatever it is you would like to have,” says McGarey. “There are always ways of calling out for help in your dreams, in your prayers, in your thinking. If you keep thinking about how you’re going to get out and, on the soul level, what you were put on this earth to do, then things move. You don’t stay stuck.”