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Daniel Rubin: Older, wiser, and often happier

Do not envy Lindsay Lohan. Do not worship Tom Brady (well, you would be excused for that). The elderly are happier than the young, a new study shows. Much happier than boomers.

Do not envy Lindsay Lohan. Do not worship Tom Brady (well, you would be excused for that). The elderly are happier than the young, a new study shows. Much happier than boomers.

This is so unfathomable that I thought I'd run this research from the University of Chicago by a panel of experts in the summertime of their senescence.

Remember the Elder Wisdom Circle? I'd visited them a year ago at the Heritage Towers in Doylestown as they ladled advice to those greener in matters of the home and heart.

My plan now was to walk them line-by-line through an Associated Press account of how sociologist Yang Yang looked at 32 years of interviews with Americans ages 18 to 88, and found that the odds of being happy increased by 5 percent every 10 years.

The Elders had their own plans.

"Tell us what


think happiness is," began Ginny Stanis, a retired home-economics teacher, before I could get out a sentence.

"Is it hard to recognize happiness before you've had any?" interjected Jean Brooks, a former magazine editor in Manhattan.

This must be what it feels like to argue before a panel of appellate court judges.

It's contentment, I blurted.

"Is it happiness when you accept what you are?" Stanis pressed. "Or is it something ecstatic that only happens in the peaks?"

Realistic, not rosy

For two hours they sat around a large conference table, 11 women and one man from their late 70s to their early 90s, ignoring a plate of Danish and feasting on the idea that life seems better with age.

Some caveats: It helps, they said, if you've got your health, and some money, so you don't have to choose between pills and gasoline. And understand that time barely cushions the sting of losing loved ones.

Ruth Berreth, a retired surgical nurse, cautioned it would be wrong to paint the later years in too rosy a hue. "I've been happy at different moments," she said, "and also sad at different times of my life."

A key for her is social activity - dinner each night with friends, playing cards, making meals and doing laundry for her church, serving on the center's welcoming committee. "I've been a little lax this year, but I'm getting going again."

Barbara Carlson seconded the thought. When she retired in 1986 from teaching disabled children, her husband, a Methodist minister, suggested they travel. But "not just to look at people. We were going to do something." They built media rooms for colleges in Africa, hospital wings in Mexico. And worked with friends and family across Central America.

Brooks said, "You felt useful. You could see your accomplishments.

"Happiness," Carlson concluded, "is something you can't seek. You find it."

Peace at last

After about an hour we got around to my line-by-line plan. By then we'd already discussed the teachings of the Great Depression, carped about television's idolization of youth, and celebrated no longer worrying about making a payroll or affording a nutritious meal for your family.

One finds peace, the elders said, when one finally throws out that closetful of fabric one's been meaning to sew for decades. Be realistic.

Mary Smith offered a novel solution for unfinished business: "I'm still planning on coming back in another life and doing the Appalachian Trail," she announced. "I promised myself at 40 I'd do it."

"Maybe you did it in a past life and you forgot," shot back Doris Williams.

They expressed sympathy for me and my boomer buds - wound too tightly, threatened with delayed and diminished retirement, facing rationed health care.

Our visit wrapping up, Berreth won some nods of agreement when she pronounced, "I'm glad I'm my age. You wouldn't want to turn back the clock."

"No," replied Emma Preiss, a social activist approaching 89. "Once is enough."