- Pumping Irony -

PUMPING IRONY: Does Bliss Require Obliviousness?

A new study may explain why geezers tend to be happier than their youthful peers, but it seems that joy can come with a cost.

A bulletin board with various paper faces pinned to it

A good deal of research in recent years has suggested that life in Geezerville is more upbeat than outsiders might suspect. We can attribute some of this phenomenon to “the happiness curve” popularized by Jonathan Rauch — the notion that we naturally lighten up as we move beyond middle age into senior territory. But a new study corroborates my own experience: Maybe we’re happier because we’ve simply grown more oblivious.

In my case, at least, that’s really saying something.

I like to think of myself as a sensitive guy, but my inability to respond to emotional cues has flummoxed My Lovely Wife for a meaningful portion of the past 42 years. She’ll describe some home-improvement vision that’s dear to her heart, for instance, and I’ll skip over the fact that it’s just an idea and launch into all the reasons why it’s impractical. Or I’ll spout some inanity when she’s clearly yearning for an adult conversation about the migratory patterns of nymphalis antiopa or the menu for Easter dinner.

This does not make MLW happy, and she’s not shy about communicating her displeasure in ways even I can’t ignore, so I was puzzled by a report released last week suggesting that my general cluelessness may actually contribute to a more joyful life.

Researchers at McLean Hospital’s Laboratory for Brain and Cognitive Health Technology tested nearly 10,000 participants, ranging from pre-adolescents to octogenarians, on their ability to discern some of the emotional cues I’m often missing. What they learned about youngsters was not particularly earth shattering (they zoom in on social threats), but their insights about elderly sensitivity suggest that my blissful obliviousness may be less of a character flaw than an inevitable product of aging.

Seniors gradually lose their ability to decode facial cues to emotions such as fear and anger, senior author Laura Germine, PhD, explained in a statement, but they retain their sensitivity to joyful expressions. “What’s remarkable is that we see declines in many visual perceptual abilities as we get older, but here we did not see such declines in the perception of happiness,” she said. “These findings fit well with other research showing that older adults tend to have more positive emotions and a positive outlook.”

In other words, because geezers like me are often oblivious to joyless expressions, we’ve built a little happiness bubble that deflects the feelings of anger, tension, and frustration we encounter among people hoping for some genuine connection. But this doesn’t adequately explain why MLW has little trouble focusing during my occasional attempts at serious conversation. I doubt that she’s suffering from a happiness deficit. She’s a pretty upbeat gal when I’m not interrupting her thoughts on this spring’s planting schedule to explain the difference between baseball’s Grapefruit and Cactus leagues.

Maybe it’s a guy thing.

I’m working on it. Just the other day, in fact, we were upstairs envisioning together her dream of a prohibitively expensive second bathroom, and over the course of a half-hour of measuring and imagining, I managed to make no mention of its prohibitive expense. It’s just an idea, after all, which costs nothing — a small price to pay for a little happiness.

is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

Leave a Comment