In the Happiness Olympics Age Gets the Gold!

30/07/2012 18:25 BST | Updated 27/09/2012 10:12 BST

If one of the world's top athletes asked you how to find happiness, what would you tell him?

Go for gold, perhaps?

That has to be a real possibility for champion sprinter Tyson Gay, although a spanner in the works might be his remarkable competitor, Jamaican Usain Bolt.

But if Gay is pipped to the post, it might not be the worst thing in the world for him. He recently revealed to the London Evening Standard that getting gold at the 2012 Olympics might not bring him the happiness he desires.

He isn't convinced it would amount to one of those defining moments when you realise "you're satisfied and you've done what you want to do in life."

But a more startling answer to offer Tyson Gay and others "trying to find that happiness in life" would be: "Go for old!"

Perhaps surprisingly recent research suggests seniors are leading the race to achieve day-to-day happiness.

This was highlighted in a talk entitled "Older people are happier" by Laura Carstensen, director of Stanford's Center on Longevity.

She told a TED audience about a survey by the Centre for Disease Control that had asked various age groups if they had experienced "significant psychological distress" the previous week.

Interestingly, fewer of the older individuals had.

In addition, a Gallup poll that asked participants how much stress, worry and anger they'd felt the previous day found such negativism decreased with age.

Social scientists call this the "paradox of aging", and to the extent happiness is assumed to be defined by material conditions it indeed seems paradoxical. Seniors can certainly face daunting challenges of ill health, diminished funds and loss of both their independence and position in society.

But does happiness depend solely on the materially measurable in our lives?

Or do we each have a boundless reservoir of spiritual qualities to draw on which are a joy to express.

Even in the commercial world, MasterCard's long-standing and award-winning "priceless" advertising campaign points in this direction. It promotes its financial services by lauding the intangibles neither money nor credit cards can buy - like love, togetherness, peace and gratitude.

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why seniors tend to be happier.

A recent survey found they are better than the rest of us at appreciating the biggest of all intangibles: divine Love.

The research, carried out across 30 countries, found "belief in God" was higher among older adults and that "the biggest leap in faith" happened after 58. Indeed, almost twice as many people over 67 said they were "certain that God exists", compared with those 27 or younger.

Many elderly people find their spiritual conviction can be a comfort in coping with the ill health that can threaten happiness in senior years.

Others have found it to be more than just a comfort. They have seen how spiritual insights can overcome some of the health problems of old age, such as hearing difficulties and pain and stiffness.

Seeing stereotypes of aging overturned by scientific research and spiritual experience has to be welcome.

And it is great to see them overturned at the Olympics, too! In London 2012, septuagenarian Hiroshi Hoketsu will be competing in the Japanese equestrian team.

He might not be a favourite to win a medal. But Japan's oldest-ever Olympian is "proving emphatically that age is just a number" while "hard at work preparing to compete against the world's finest horsemen", according to the Tokyo Weekender. And he is already dreaming of representing his country again at the tender age of 79 - when the Olympic Games return to the Japanese capital in 2020.

So Hoketsu is proving age is "just a number" and a more spiritual view is helping overturn the challenges of age.

Perhaps then a key to health and happiness is not to think of ourselves as defined by that number but to see ourselves and others in a more divine light.