Buddhist teachings on happiness have long held that accepting that which cannot be changed or controlled is key to reducing suffering. Now, this ancient doctrine has science on its side: A new study has found that during the difficult changes of later life — moving into residential care and losing a certain level of independence — an acceptance of what can’t be changed is a major predictor of life satisfaction.
Researchers at Deakin University in Australia found that when it comes to life satisfaction in one’s later years, the ability to accept what cannot be changed is equally important to the feeling of being able to exert control over one’s life.
The small study, recently published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, examined levels of life satisfaction and perceived control in 101 older adults living in residential care, and another 101 older adults living independently in the same community. Life satisfaction was measured based on the eight measured domains of standard of living, health, achievement, relationships, safety, connection to a community, future security, and spirituality and religion.
The researchers defined “perceived control” as consisting of two components: Primary control relates to the capacity to make changes to your environment to suit your needs or desires, while secondary control is about making changes within yourself to adapt to your environment.
Secondary control — the acceptance of what can’t be controlled externally — was found to be just as important as primary control in determining the life satisfaction of older adults in residential care. This type of internal control helped the subjects to cope with the losses in primary control that they had experienced.
“In order to protect the well-being of older individuals, adaptation involves both a sense of control and the active acceptance of what cannot be changed,” the study’s authors said in a press release. “Primary and secondary perceived control may predict satisfaction with comparable strength depending on the older person’s situation. Acceptance takes more of a prime position in low control situations.”
Although the changes of later life can be challenging, previous research has found that people tend to become happier as they age. Happiness hits a global average low point at age 46, and then generally increases after that point into the golden years.
“Past middle age there seems to be growing happiness into the later years that occurs regardless of money, employment status or children,” writes Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., on PBS’s “This Emotional Life.”
Another study published this year offered insight into why this might be. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley found that older adults are better able to deal with negative emotions and have greater levels of emotional acceptance than younger people.
“Acceptance is good for anyone,” Iris Mauss, a psychologist and assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a press release. “It just seems to be the case that older people use it more than younger people. They’re sort of wise to it.”
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