Q. What are some of the other psychological benefits of aging?
A. We become choosier about where we spend our time and energy. And we get away with our choices more. There's so much more freedom because we're not comparing ourselves to other people the way we did when we were younger.
Q. Don't some older people get more disappointed or sadder?
A. That's important to note: Life doesn't get better for everyone. And the two big exceptions are people who are overwhelmingly self-centered, and people who are stuck in the detours of alcoholism and drugs. People who are caught in self-centeredness lose out on the many opportunities for growing as one gets older. Some self-centered people actually experience an opening of their hearts because of bereavements and physical crises. These are some of the greatest forces of change. And even people on alcohol and drugs … have a chance in becoming clean and sober, even in their 60s, 70s and 80s.
Q. Can't ill health cancel out other gains?
A. This is another one of those paradoxes. There's a good example in the book. A woman who was losing her eyesight and was grieving mightily held a party to give away all of her books to her friends. And a few of those friends offered to start coming over once a week and reading to her. And that became a wonderful experience of a new kind of intimacy.
Q. What about the impact of financial problems?
A. Financial issues are not what determine your happiness — it's how you deal with the circumstances you're in. Even if you are on quite a limited income, that does not equate with unhappiness. That's borne up in the research. And most of the people I worked with over the years were lower-income people. I'm not trying to make light of how hard it is to live on limited means. It takes creativity and guts.
Q. Your book suggests that good relationships are more meaningful than worldly accomplishment. Is that true for everyone?
A. Everyone. I have yet to meet an exception when I've been with people — especially on their deathbeds.
Q. And yet on the eve of a potentially fatal heart operation, my father told me he had just one regret: that his work, in physics, hadn't gotten more recognition.
A. It isn't that one's contribution to the world is not important — in fact, it becomes more and more important as we get older, this feeling of leaving a legacy. There is this huge need to contribute to one's community that we're going to see with the baby boomers more than ever before.