When I told a friend that I was working on a paper about old age, he shared an exchange he recently had with his brother, another retired professor. His brother commented that, “The best thing about getting older is being a professor emeritus,” with emphasis on the emeritus part, my friend noted. While both my friend and his brother were both very well-respected teachers and mentors, and both enjoyed long, successful careers in academia, I think they enjoy not being in academia even more. Both appear to be faring quite well and are enjoying the freedom of retirement.
Others express a less sanguine view of old age. In The Human Predicament, David Benatar describes human life as “a tragic predicament from which none of us can escape” because “both life and death are, in crucial respects, awful.” Given his pessimistic view of the human condition, it is perhaps unsurprising that Benatar describes getting older as a “long slow, decline” that begins in one’s early twenties, and characterises the majority of one’s life. As Benatar explains, “hair turns grey or begins to fall out; wrinkles begin to appear and various body parts sag; muscle gives way to fat, as strength does to weakness; and eyesight and hearing begin to fail” and “the strong, vibrant youth gradually makes way for the weak, decrepit ancient.” He also reminds us, “old age is where everybody wants to get, but no one wants to be” because of the frailties that accompany old age, and also the increasing threat of death.
As someone who has not yet reached “old age” (but hopes to get there some day!), I find my friends’ views about getting older much more persuasive. But before I can address the question of how old age affects well-being, we must first get clear on what it is we are evaluating. When we think about well-being or the prudential value of a person’s life, we are talking about how good that person’s life is for the person living it.
Most theorists would accept this minimal characterisation of a person’s good; unfortunately, that is where the agreement is likely to end, for there is no consensus within the literature on the nature of well-being or what components might be necessary for living well.
If our aim is to evaluate how getting older affects well-being, we will need a theory of well-being that can tell us how to gauge when someone is better or worse-off. For simplicity, I am going to use the theory I find most compelling, which identifies well-being with happiness that is achieved in morally acceptable ways. By happiness, I mean that a person is satisfied with her life. When she looks at her life, she is disposed to view it favourably, and the more favourable her view, the happier she will be. Happiness is connected with one’s overall evaluation of her life, which will reflect her individual values or what is important to her. Satisfaction with every aspect of life is certainly not necessary for happiness, but the more dissatisfaction one experiences, the less happy one will be.
Viewing happiness as a necessary component of well-being resonates well with common sense, for consider two people who are equally accomplished in terms of the objective goods in their lives (they have comparable success in their careers, personal lives, finances, etc.) but one is happy and the other is miserable. Which person is better-off? It seems clear it is the one who is happy. The moral component of my account arises, because saying that a person is achieving well-being implies that she is living a good life, but how can a good life be evil? Like every other issue in philosophy, theorists disagree on whether an evil person can fare well, but my view is that we cannot say that a morally depraved person is living a good life. Thus, to achieve well-being, one must be achieving happiness in morally acceptable ways or be a morally decent person.
Armed with a theory of well-being, we can now return to the question about how getting older affects well-being. I’d like to begin with Book I of Plato’s Republic, where Socrates is asking the elderly Cephalus about what he can expect from old age. Cephalus reports that when he gets together with friends who are of the same age, many complain about how badly they are treated by their relatives, and they agree that getting older makes a person’s life much worse. Cephalus then points out that old age is not necessarily the cause of these people’s problems, for if it were, then all old people would suffer a similar fate. Yet, as Cephalus notes, he and many others who are old are doing just fine. The problem, Cephalus observes, is not old-age but “the way people live. If they are moderate and contented, old age, too, is only moderately onerous; if they aren’t, both old age and youth are hard to bear.” When challenged that perhaps he bears old age more easily because he is wealthy, Cephalus concedes there may be some truth to that, but, he notes, “a good person wouldn’t easily bear old age if he were poor, but a bad one wouldn’t be at peace with himself even if he were wealthy.”
I believe this reasoning can be used to challenge Benatar’s pessimism. If your health is poor, and your lack of strength, eyesight or hearing is detracting from your satisfaction with your life, then clearly you will not be faring well, regardless of how old you are. But physical declines can (and do) occur throughout our lives, not only in old age. Most people will be in the prime of their lives physically well before middle age, so the majority of one’s life can be seen as one very long decline. But that need not make one unhappy, because it is not the occurrence of physical declines that detracts from well-being, but how we feel about them. If one adopts the right attitude towards these inevitable changes, such as accepting them as a necessary part of life, then one need not be any worse-off because of them.
Cephalus also reports that some of his friends complain about missing the pleasures they used to enjoy in their youth. Some of his friends get angry as if they were being deprived of these things, and they look back with remorse at how well they used to live. Once again, Cephalus disagrees, observing that what one person mourns as a loss (such as the youthful temptation to overindulge in pleasures), another person might view favourably. Cephalus quotes the poet Sophocles, who says “I am very glad to have escaped from all that, like a slave who has escaped from a savage and tyrannical master.” Cephalus notes that one benefit of getting older is a taming of one’s appetites, which brings one peace and freedom. The Stoic Seneca expresses a similar view: “How nice it is to have outworn one’s desires and left them behind!”
Seneca also suggests we should “cherish old age and enjoy it” because “it is full of pleasure if you know how to use it. Fruit tastes most delicious just when its season is ending.” We also find in Seneca a response to Benatar’s comment about old age bringing with it an awareness of the threat of death. As Seneca explains, “death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one – the order in which we each receive our summons is not determined by our precedence in the register – and secondly, that no one is so very old that it would be quite unnatural for him to hope for one more day.”
Perhaps the young person who enjoys partying, living promiscuously, and drinking to excess will not find this argument persuasive. This person might worry that old age will be boring, and like Cephalus’s friends, she will feel remorse over the fun she no longer has. But one should realise this loss is not unique to old age. For example, getting married, having a full-time job and a mortgage to pay, and having children are all life changes that greatly impact one’s ability to go out and have fun with reckless abandon. One need not wait until old age to regret this loss or to miss the carelessness of one’s youth. The regrets of Cephalus’ friends can occur at any time of life, and how well one deals with those changes will determine how well one fares.
I would argue that the changes associated with old age, most notably the physical declines, are actually easier to cope with than some other life changes, because they happen gradually. The change associated with having children, for example, is neither gradual nor something you can slowly acclimate yourself to. Unless you’ve been a parent before, nothing can prepare you for the change that occurs when you bring that newborn home from the hospital, and you feel the full weight of your new responsibility. Before I had my children, I thought I knew what to expect on some abstract, intellectual level. I had no idea how transformative an experience parenthood would be, instantly altering every aspect of my life – my work, my relationships, and especially, my priorities.
The important thing to keep in mind is that each change in life presents different freedoms and restrictions, and different avenues for satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Assuming one is in relatively good health, there is no reason to view the satisfactions of old age as inferior to those of one’s youth. Happiness depends on how you choose to find satisfaction in life. If you need to go out and party in order to be happy, don’t worry about old age, you are probably going to have a hard time accepting middle age or becoming a parent. If you are determined to always be at your peak physically, you are going to face a lot of dissatisfaction as the inevitable physical breakdowns occur more and more frequently. But the good news is that our desires are fungible, and we have the ability to simply rid ourselves of them should they prove to be a hindrance to our happiness. As Epicurus wisely noted, “if you wish to make Pythocles wealthy, don’t give him more money; rather, reduce his desires.” If we are able to adapt to each new phase of life, and find new satisfactions in each one, then we have no reason to fear getting older.
Next, I’d like to consider the implications of Michael Slote’s view in Goods and Virtues, where he argues that our ordinary thinking ascribes unequal importance to different periods of our lives. For Slote, what happens in what might be called the “prime of life” is much more significant for a person’s well-being than what happens in old age. Slote asks us to consider a once successful architect, academic, or politician, who now spends his retirement concentrating on winning senior citizen shuffleboard competitions. Slote suggests that we count his shuffleboard victories “negligibly or not at all towards making his overall life seem happy or fortunate, because we tend not to take such successes very seriously.”
What bearing does Slote’s view have on our question about how old age affects well-being? If we measure well-being in terms of happiness, then Slote’s argument seems to imply that happiness experienced during retirement, for example, is not as valuable as happiness experienced in the prime of one’s life. On Slote’s view, we would have to discount my friends’ claims about how much they are enjoying retirement, simply because it is occurring later in life, rather than in their prime.
I see no reason to accept this view. Why should we privilege one time period over others when every phase of life brings new satisfactions and dissatisfactions? Your attitude towards your life is what determines how well you fare, not what you are doing. Consider an example: One person is in the prime of her life, and she is working hard to establish herself in her chosen field, but she frequently feels disgruntled and frustrated, because she has little time for her friends or family. In her career, she believes she is accomplishing important things, but she is rarely happy. The other person is well into retirement and enjoys a life of leisure activities that include playing golf, reading, completing New York Times Crossword puzzles, and playing cards with friends. Which person is better-off right now? I would argue it is the person in retirement, who is actually enjoying her life. On Slote’s view, we ought to discount the “trivial activities” of the retiree, but I don’t find reasoning this persuasive. The retiree is living a good life, because she is happy; the phase of life during which this happiness occurs is not relevant.
Thus, I see it as a mistake to view old age pessimistically, as Benatar does, just because one will face physical changes and declines. I also believe it is a mistake to discount the happiness one may find in old age, simply because it is not connected with one’s life work (as in one’s prime) but occurs during retirement, when one is finally able to do what one actually enjoys. Put simply, if you are old and satisfied, you are living well; if you are young and dissatisfied, you are not. The actual activities and projects you choose are not important for evaluating your well-being, for what matters is not what you do, but how you feel about it. Cephalus was right to emphasise that what one person views as a tragic loss, another is grateful be rid of. Rather than focusing on what we lose as we get older, we should look at what we gain. Our entire lives are changing constantly, and to fixate on what one has lost at any point is a good recipe for unhappiness. So the good news is, old age need not make us any worse-off, and if we choose to find new avenues of satisfaction that bring us happiness, it can be the best time of our lives.