An early baby boomer, born in the summer of 1949, I’m rapidly approaching my — gulp! — 70th birthday. When I was younger, my parents of blessed memory used to tell me that life flies by in an instant. I listened politely, and then went on with my business. But — pay attention young people — they were undoubtedly correct.
I won’t deny it; this is a sobering milestone. The average lifespan of an American male is 78.6 years, although financial advisers these days warn that you need to possess adequate resources to last until roughly 100. I often wonder why the Jewish advisers don’t use the aspirational number 120. In any event, I’d sign up for either number, assuming it is accompanied by reasonably good physical and psychological health (a matter of profound importance regardless of one’s age). Longevity is precious, if there is quality of life —admittedly, a highly subjective category.
As anyone in my age group will tell you, the body ain’t what it used to be. Last summer, I injured my hamstring muscle getting out of the ocean in Long Branch and had to spend several months in physical therapy. More recently, I hurt my knee just standing up awkwardly in the house. Yet, these minor setbacks aside, research suggests that this is supposed to be the happiest time of my life.
In 2014, the Midlife in the United States Research Project (MIDUS), a series of studies on aging funded by the National Institute on Aging, found that adults are generally happy in their mid-20s to late 30s, then become less so during their 40s. From then on, happiness gradually increases until reaching its peak at age 69.
A similar study by the Centre for Economic Performance in Germany found that happiness followed a U-shaped curve between the ages of 20 to 70, with the highest satisfaction coming at the ages of 23 and 69. So, if you’ve already passed age 23, take heart: Another high point lies ahead.
Why this late-blooming happiness? In a recent edition of Next Avenue — a daily e-newsletter for the over-50 crowd that describes itself as the “public media’s first and only national journalism service for America’s booming older population” — psychology professor and retired therapist Dr. Susan Stewart writes, “In later life, we develop what some gerontologists call emotional mastery [Editor’s Note: Emphasis is hers]: the ability to recognize and regulate our emotions and to express them in non-harming ways. Our responses to other people and to life events tend to mature and become more adaptive, flexible and kind.”
In doing some research, I found that Judaism is not big on birthdays. There is a verse in the Book of Psalms, however, that says since one’s life expectancy is 70 years, some may reasonably choose to celebrate that birthday. Also, apparently my next birthday will earn me some enhanced respect. According to the Shulchan Aruch, one of Judaism’s most respected law codes, written by Rabbi Joseph Caro in the 16th century, there is an obligation to stand up in the presence of a person who is 70 or older, even if that person is not a Torah scholar. Imagine the amount of respect due to a 70-year-old Torah scholar! Perhaps a retired Jewish professional would qualify for this elite status.
So, what is this almost-70-year-old thinking about these days? For one, my bucket list. At this point, I know full well my list won’t include hiking to the top of Mount Everest or swimming the English Channel. (To be honest, these weren’t even on my list when I was younger.) Yet, even modest hiking in America’s amazing national parks or strolling around interesting cities, whether in our country or overseas, still requires a certain amount of energy and physical capability. I’ve always loved to travel, and I regard the next few years as prime time. Carpe diem — seize the day! In fact, I’m looking forward to seizing many.
Then there’s the more introspective matter of legacy. I pray that it’s a long way off, but lately I’ve been musing about what I’ll leave behind when I’m gone. My two adult children, and I am exceedingly proud of both, are at the top of the list. But regular readers of this column know well that I’ve had a lifelong commitment — fulfilled through my professional career — to a cause beyond family and friends, namely, encouraging U.S. support of a secure and democratic Israel at peace with its neighbors.
And then there are my columns (more than 50 since I started writing for NJJN in the fall of 2016), which have provided me a wonderful platform to express my views. I’m hoping that, long into the future, descendants of family and friends will be able to retrieve records of my writing and work to give them a sense of who I was, what I accomplished, and how I perceived my world.
Reaching 70, inevitably, is accompanied by sadness over the loss of many important people in one’s life — beloved family members, dear friends, and valued professional colleagues. And there is no escape from thoughts of things I wish I had — and hadn’t — done. However, validating the research mentioned above, I approach my eighth decade with a great deal of contentment and optimism. And, of course, a bucket list.
Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.