Greying but grinning

After a certain age, you would have chalked up enough pain and loss to learn that it is the bad experiences that help us cherish what's good in our lives

I went for a long overdue haircut recently. As E, my long-time hairstylist, lopped off my dry locks, I made my usual request. "You know what to do when you see white hair, right?"

"Yes," she said with a laugh as she deftly snipped off the rogue grey strands. Then she gave her usual response: "Aiyah, white hair is better than having no hair."

She should know. She was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, while in her mid-40s, and lost her hair during the subsequent course of chemotherapy.

R, another pal, has friendly advice for me too. Known as a tough cookie in her field of business, she buckled when her husband died of a sudden heart attack a few years ago.

After she learnt of a recent bereavement in my family, she said it took her three years to find closure.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

She credits her loved ones, especially her children, for yanking her out from the dark emotional abyss and urges me to make peace with my decision to quit full-time work. "Family first," she said. "Don't wait till it's too late. Like me."

The day he died, her husband had called to ask her out for lunch. She was tied up with work and turned him down. That was the last time they spoke.

I've learnt a lesson or two from my own tale of trauma. Two years ago, I woke up one day to find that my left ear had clogged up overnight.

My annoyance at what I initially thought was an inconvenient flu symptom quickly turned to fear when I was diagnosed with sudden hearing loss. The cause of the condition is usually unknown and, worse, there is no specific cure.

Suddenly, conversations became a challenge and I began to dread all social interaction. I found noisy places intolerable and became prone to dizzy spells, as my lopsided hearing had skewed my sense of balance.

It took me weeks to come to terms with the fact that I could remain quite deaf for the rest of my life. It took another month before I finally wrapped up my pity party.

"The condition might be uncomfortable but it's not terminal," I kept telling myself. "And thank God only one ear is affected."

I have since recovered most of my hearing, although I still go "huh?" more often than my kids would like.

Compared to E and R, my suffering, if you could even call it that, was negligible. But like them, I've found the episode of personal pain enlightening. Loss, as they say, teaches one to appreciate more.

When I find my temper rising after yet another spat between my two kids, I remind myself: "Remember the time when you could hardly hear even when they shouted? Be thankful that everything is now loud and clear."

What I once took for granted I now embrace with gratitude: the patter of rain on rooftops, say, or the ease with which I can hold a conversation.

My friends and I have reached that stage in life where we are no longer strangers to pain and loss. But the scars from these bad experiences that add up as we age - bereavement, divorce, miscarriage, health scares - remind us to seek and cherish what's good in our lives.

This was why I wasn't surprised to read about a recent study, which reported that older people tend to be happier than younger folks.

What's more, the research, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry last month, suggested a paradoxical trend: The older the person, the better his or her mental health tended to be.

Researchers contacted 1,546 people aged 21 to 99 via random telephone calls and found that while ageing was tied to declines in physical and cognitive functions, older people reported higher levels of overall satisfaction, happiness and well-being, and lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress.

People in their 20s and 30s were the unhappiest of the lot, mainly because of the many financial, educational, romantic and career- oriented demands they face, said Dr Dilip Jeste, the study's senior author.

The study joins a growing body of research that shows life seems to get better as we grow older. At the very least, we learn to cope better with whatever life throws at us.

Dr Jeste, who is also a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Center on Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego, noted that older people are much better able to shrug off life's small stressors and acquire invaluable wisdom.

Listing the advantages that come with age, he said: "Peer pressure loses its sting. Better decision- making, more control of emotions, doing things that are not just for yourself, knowing oneself better, being more studious and yet more decisive."

Older folks learn "not to sweat the little things. And a lot of previously big things become little", he added.

This is probably why the more years I clock, the more the famous Serenity Prayer by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr speaks to me: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

The decline in our ambitions is matched by growth in our acceptance, helping us face both the good and bad with equanimity.

For now, though, I still struggle with the white hairs that are sprouting at an alarming rate.

I asked E if there is a quick way to dye pesky grey roots, like a DIY pen applicator, for instance.

"Get a mascara in the same shade as your hair colour," she advised. "It washes off easily so you don't have to worry about making mistakes or wasting money."

Then, repeating her "glass is half-full" mantra, she added: "At least you still have hair to dye."

I laughed. For the first time in my life, I'm going to buy a mascara but not for the purpose it was designed for.

Looking for the silver lining rather than silver strands, I realised, is going to be a way of life if I don't want to turn into a crotchety crone.

To paraphrase one of the news headlines on Dr Jeste's study, I might be greying, but I hope I won't stop grinning.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 11, 2016, with the headline 'Greying but grinning'. Print Edition | Subscribe