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We have the potential to get happier (and more successful) as we get older. Here’s how

Social scientist Arthur C. Brooks says to be happy, you need to change the metaphor from a canvas you’re filling up to a block of marble that you’re chipping away.

We have the potential to get happier (and more successful) as we get older. Here’s how
[Photo: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images]

Arthur C. Brooks is an American social scientist, the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School. He has authored eleven books, including the bestsellers Love Your Enemies and The Conservative Heart, and writes the popular “How to Build a Life” column at The Atlantic.

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Below, Brooks shares five key insights from his new book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of LifeListen to the audio version—read by Brooks himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

1. Happiness is not just up to chance.

To begin with, it’s not just a feeling. The feeling of happiness is like the smell of the turkey at your Thanksgiving dinner—it’s not the dinner itself. Happiness is a set of elements; it’s made up of enjoyment, satisfaction, and purpose. And we can control all those things—not perfectly, but a lot more than we typically think. The truth is that happiness does not have to be left up to chance, and we can get happier as we get older. Each of us can be happier at 75 than we were at 25.

2. The striver’s curse.

After about age 70, there are two groups of people in the population—one group gets happier and happier as they age, and the other group gets less and less happy. It’s about 50/50 if you look at the data. Now, most people think that to be on the upper branch, to get happier as you get older, you have to be one of the successful people—the people who do a lot with their lives, who see a lot of worldly success—because then you can dine out on your success and be happy.

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Well, it’s not true. The striver’s curse is that the people on the lower branch, the people who tend to get unhappier as they age, tend to be the ones who experienced a lot more success earlier in their lives. And it kind of makes sense—what goes up must come down. If you don’t do anything with your life, you won’t know when it’s over. But if you do a lot with your life and the party ends, you’re going to notice the difference. That contrast is really hard to take.

3. Our natural strengths change—and we need to get from one success curve to the second.

Early in life, we have a lot of what psychologists call “fluid intelligence.” That increases through your 20s and 30s—it increases faster if you work harder on it—but it decreases in your 40s and 50s. Fluid intelligence is your ability to work hard with focus and solve problems, your analytic capacity, what makes you a superstar—the hot lawyer, the good surgeon, maybe the incredibly inventive and intelligent electrician. In almost every job, fluid intelligence early on in your life makes you good at what you do, but it decreases as you age.

However, there’s another kind of intelligence that you get later in life called “crystallized intelligence.” That increases through your 40s and 50s. It stays high through your 60s and 70s, and even beyond. Crystallized intelligence is not all about working hard and focusing—it’s about wisdom and passing on knowledge. You get wiser as you get older, which means you know a lot, and you know how to use the information. It also means you’re a much better teacher—the best teachers are older people. So early on, you have fluid intelligence, and later on, you have crystallized intelligence. The trick is to go from fluid to crystallized, to go from innovator to instructor.

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4. Don’t add without subtracting.

One of the things that all happy older people have in common is that they don’t just know how to add things to their lives; they also know how to subtract things from their lives. Early on, life is like a canvas that you’re filling up with paint—creatively, with energy, with enthusiasm, more brush strokes, more pain! And it’s all up to you—what you paint is limited only by your imagination. But after a certain point, that canvas gets pretty full.

So to be happy, you need to change the metaphor from a canvas you’re filling up to a block of marble that you’re chipping away. In the second half of your life, you need to become a sculptor and chip away the things that aren’t you—the possessions, the attachments, the beliefs, even the opinions—all the stuff that distracts you from the serious business of being you. To be happy as you get older, remember: don’t just add, subtract. Don’t just have a bucket list—have a reverse bucket list for every year on your birthday, when you look at the five or ten things you want to get rid of because they’re holding you back.

5. Happiness is based on love.

One of the most interesting things in the neuroscience and social science of happiness is that happiness is based on love. Love is the nuclear fuel of happiness, and if you don’t have a lot of love in your life, you can’t get happier as you get older. And that means you need to work on the love in your life. You need to cultivate your relationships, whether they’re your friendships, family relationships, or marriage. You’ve got to see them get better as you get older so that you can get happier as you get older.

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Here’s something to think about: the aspen tree is a stately masterpiece. It looks like it’s all alone, isolated, yet majestic, and you can take shade under it. It’s a beautiful tree. But the truth of the matter is that an aspen tree is not a good metaphor for the sole striver, the successful person, at all. See, the aspen tree is actually not one plant—an entire grove of aspen trees is one plant. They have the same root system. In fact, the largest organism in the world is a stand of aspen trees in Utah called Pando that’s 106 acres large containing 6 million kilograms of wood. That’s one plant.

And that’s you, too. You’re not a solitary aspen tree. You’re part of a vast root system—and if you want to get happier as you get older, you need to cultivate your root system, not just look out for your leaves and your individual tree.

Maybe you’re a striver and successful, but you’re kind of lonely in your relationships. Well, successful people usually have a lot of people around them. They have a lot of “deal” friends. How many real friends do you have? Go from deal to real, and watch yourself get happier.

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This article originally appeared in Next Big Idea Club magazine and is reprinted with permission.


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