Tim Lott: Growing older – it's our reward for getting through youth

Life when you're young is supposed to be great. It's a myth. Let's stop pretending

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A survey of 4,000 adults released last week showed that, remarkably, fiftysomethings are actually healthier than people in their twenties. This is the final confirmation for me of what has been a long-held belief – that being old trumps being young any day of the week.

I am aware there is a lot of bravado when this subject comes up. All the talk of the "golden oldies"and "fabulous fifties" does have a faint stench of desperation about it. After all, isn't it axiomatic that age equals decay, which equals dissatisfaction, disappointment and ultimately, death?

But I am genuinely of the opinion that being older is a great deal more satisfying than being younger. And it is not an unsupported theory. Quite apart from the fact that the cult of youth is only 50 or so years old, any cursory study of happiness statistics compiled by academics consistently shows that happiness tends to reach its lowest point in the early thirties and then consistently improves as you approach your sixties, after which it flattens out.

This certainly chimes with my experience, since I had a total breakdown in my early thirties, partly as a result of my own ambition and unrealistic expectations about what life could be. Now, at the age of 53, I am more realistic – and that is one of the reasons why I am far happier.

Of course, from a young person's point of view, it might seem bewildering that someone 25 years older than them – overweight, balding and considerably closer to death – could possibly make such a claim. After all, being old is so ugly. And in a society obsessed by appearances, decay is a recipe for misery. But they think that only because they are young.

They don't understand, for instance, that your idea of your own attractiveness is intrinsically tied up with that of your peer group. When I was in my twenties, I was competing in my own mind with people who were much better looking than I was – not only more glamorous contemporaries, but role models such as rock stars, actors and so on.

But one of the joys of being in your fifties is that all your peers look as crappy as you do. Turning on the TV and seeing that some heart-throb of your youth looks as if he spent the past 20 years overdosing on doughnuts and now has a face like a sorely abused potato and hair growing out of his nose is immensely reassuring. I know that objectively I was much more attractive in my twenties – flatter stomach, full head of hair, unwrinkled skin, etc. But I didn't feel more attractive – I felt ugly. Now I am ugly – but I like the way I look. It all goes to show how relative these things are.

Part of one's improved self-image is the realisation that no one cares what you look like anyway. No one ever did, actually, though of course you thought that women were checking your abs and pecs just like the adverts claimed. The difference is, when you're older you don't mind.

Why? Well, if you're lucky like me, it's because you're married to someone you find attractive and you don't have to worry about luring people of the opposite sex into bed. But also, you body chemistry is different. When I was in my twenties my raging hormones pestered me to sleep with pretty much every attractive woman that I saw, and I endured a great deal of suffering through the knowledge that the overwhelming majority of those women almost certainly weren't going to let me. Now I can admire an attractive female without panting like an overheated puppy and suffering the ensuing sting of disappointment as it dawns on me that the possibility of carnal relations with her are unthinkably remote.

One of the other great virtues of youth, after all, is meant to be the opportunity for sexual freedom. However, unless you are one of the relatively small number of young men who are incredibly good-looking or the relatively small number of women who just want recreational sex, it is better to be with just one partner – and that is the way most people in their fifties end up.

All those mating rituals are painful anyway, not fun at all like the movies try to tell you. I suspect that the reason so many young people get drunk on Friday and Saturday nights is not to have "fun" but because they are shy and find the mating ritual difficult and embarrassing.

Ah – fun. Was there ever such a misleading concept foisted on such a gullible group as the young. By the time you are 50 you have realised that life isn't "fun". Even if it isn't as bad as that old misery Larkin said – "first boredom, then fear" – its central reality isn't fun and never was. Life is sort of neutral and the hope of living in a perpetual state of stimulation, interest and experiment is nothing but fantasy. But oddly enough, once you have accepted that life contains a great deal of dullness, it isn't really dull at all. It just is. Real boredom arises out of impossibly high expectations.

One more point about "fun". Something I certainly didn't realise in my twenties was that children – of which I have four – far from being the burden or bore I imagined are actually incredibly funny. They are nature's comedians, and they will make you laugh more than all your witty mates or knowing comedies on BBC Four ever could – and on a daily basis, and with a complete and refreshing absence of irony.

There are other advantages to being older, some of them material – you are likely to have more money, people are nicer to you, and you are less likely to be attacked in the street (most victims of violence are in their teens and twenties). Most of the benefits, however, are psychological.

For a start, you know who you are. This statement won't make much sense to a 25-year-old who thinks that he is a fully formed human being and a pretty special one at that. But in fact by the time you are 50, you have realised you are not special at all. You are ordinary. As the writer and philosopher Eric Hoffer put it: "To grow old is to grow common. Old age equalises – we are aware that what is happening to us has happened to untold numbers from the beginning of time."

And it turns out that the idea that you are special – or ought to be special – isn't such a great feeling after all. In fact, quite apart from being misconceived, it's rather lonely. Once you've reached 50 you know that the individual perfection you once strived for in yourself is an impossibility and that the commonplace, crooked timber of your own humanity must be accepted and lived with. And that is also a great relief.

To know who you are means simply to have a more realistic view of yourself and your identity. A 25-year-old thinks they have an identity but what they really have is a series of masks that they are still pulling off and trying on. The word "person"derives from the Greek "persona" meaning "mask". By the time you are 50, you have discarded your masks, for good or ill. The game of pretending is over.

And thank God. I can now admit that I always loved the Carpenters, even though in 1977 there was an injunction to enjoy listening only to the Clash and the Sex Pistols and at full volume. Now I can happily put on "Close To You", in public, without being embarrassed. I like Jesus Christ Superstar, and English folk music, and I prefer Alan Bennett and Charles Dickens to Thomas Pynchon and Salman Rushdie, and I don't give a damn who knows it.

Of course there are tiresome things about growing old. The relative nearness of death, obviously (though in fact, oddly, it only ever happens to someone 10 years older than you, however old you get). Your teeth start to fall out, you smell bad and you realise that the nasty habits you thought one day you'd shake off, you never will. They are you. You are you, with all your imperfections.

And that's what makes getting old great – authenticity, that stuff that Jack Daniels and Levi's jeans are always trying to sell you, but which cannot be bought at any price.

I feel sorry for the young, but I have some consoling words for them. Don't worry – you will get older. And getting older is good. And if you realised that now, you wouldn't be in such a panic all the time.

Or to put it another way, and to quote from Carol Matthau, wife of Walter and the original model for Truman Capote's ever-young Holly Golightly: "There is no old age. There is, and there always was, just you."

And that's what old age feels like – you, only more so.

Tim Lott's book The Scent of Dried Roses is published as a Penguin Modern Classic on 7 August

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