When I first learned that the oldest Americans are the happiest, I was skeptical. I was still in the grips of the cultural bias that drowns out positive messages about late life. Also, happiness is notoriously difficult to measure. (Ask me right after I’ve eaten a chocolate chip cookie.) So I was intrigued when a counterintuitive factor behind contentment — at any age — surfaced in a recent study in the Journal of Positive Psychology. (Positive psychology studies aspects of the human condition that lead to happiness and fulfillment, and make life worth living. I wonder if there’s a companion publication for cynics.)
Conducted by researchers from Eastern Washington University and Hofstra University, the study investigated the link between gratitude and mortality, because gratitude has been shown to have lasting effects on well-being. In particular, the researchers wondered whether reflecting on death would help people appreciate life as limited and transitory, and so make them feel more grateful.
Study participants were assessed for levels of gratitude, then divided into three groups. Members of the first one simply visualized their typical daily routines. Those in Group Two wrote down their thoughts about death. In Group Three, the rubber hit the road: members were instructed to imagine themselves trapped by a fire “on the 20th floor of an old, downtown building,” and made “futile attempts to escape from the room and burning building before finally giving in to the fire and eventually death.” Those participants emerged from the study dramatically more grateful.
Visualizing a grisly near-death experience is a rough route to bliss. It feels good when you pull your hand out of the flame too. But the results suggest how readily we take life for granted, and how, as the researchers write, “reflecting on one’s own death might help individuals take stock of this benefit and consequently increase their appreciation for life.” Potent reminders of mortality, hospital visits and funerals, crowd the calendars of the old. What an excellent paradox that this should buttress a sense of well-being.