A friend recently returned to Utah following a week-long vacation to Denmark. He told me he was most surprised by the attitude of the people.
“From my initial landing at the airport through an entire week in urban and more rural areas, there was one constant,” he said. “The people were not in a hurry. They took their time enjoying a beer, a cup of coffee, a bakery item. The Danes just seemed a lot happier than Americans.”
I wrote a column several months ago about a book in which the author searched for the happiest places on earth. In a recent study, he noted, the United States ranked only 23rd in the world for overall happiness. Much of the reason, he figured, was that Americans scrambled around in a hectic pace to achieve and get places quicker. In happier places (Netherlands, Iceland, Bhutan, Great Britain, and yes, according to the surveys, Denmark) people are not necessarily lazy, but more accepting of life in general; they have healthcare and they don’t need a new SUV or a larger home to feel a higher degree of happiness.
Now a new book (“The Happiness Curve”) says Americans are happier in their 50s and 60s than at any time in their adult life. As in an international search, it comes down to expectations.
One reviewer noted that her 98-year-old grandmother greets every day with a smile. When asked about it, she replied, “What do you gain from worrying? Worry just gives you a pain in the head.”
I don’t have a pain in the head, but like many readers I do occasionally reflect upon whether I’d want to return to my 20s and 30s. It’s a silly exercise, and in fact most studies find that when Americans in their 50s and 60s are asked the same question, they invariably answer “Nope!”
There is probably no ideal age; it varies from person to person. But it makes sense that young adults face more expectations. They want a meaningful and well-paying job; they want respect in the workplace and in the neighborhood; they tend to compare their wealth, achievements, and well-being with others the same age, and can get resentful that others are out-pacing them; they worry about raising children; some have to care for aging and unhealthy parents, others faced with figuring out complex moods of their teenagers.
Wall Street Journal reviewer Emily Bobrow says the reason older people are happier is due to a forecasting error. “Young people overestimate their future life satisfaction, assuming that meeting certain goals (getting married, earning a promotion, buying a house) will deliver contentment. This makes us miserable at mid-life when we have either fallen short of our benchmarks or, having met them, we find that happiness remains elusive.”
If I were 20 again, would I do things differently? Of course, but only because I’ve learned things in my 40s, 50s, and 60s. Unlike Michael J. Fox, we cannot go back to the future, and at my age I probably won’t be moving to Denmark. All I know is that I’ve been more fortunate than not, I don’t need an expensive Lexus to improve my self-worth, and my son and daughter are employed and not asking me for money.
All in all, I’ll take it. And like the 98-year-old lady said, worrying will only give you a pain in the head.