We all know that our outlook on life changes over time. Scientific studies, however, show that many people grow happier or at least more content as they mature. That seems to be a counterintuitive notion, since aging is rarely considered a positive thing in our society. And yet, researchers found that feelings of happiness peak for most folks after the age of 50 plus.
Happiness Seems to Increase With Age
The authors of one study, which was recently published online in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, readily admit that much of their findings boil down to how people define what being happy means for them. “The study indicates that there are at least two different kinds of happiness,” said Dr. Cassie Mogilner, professor of marketing at Wharton University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in the study. “One is associated with peacefulness and one is associated with being exited.” The difference is that the young are more focused on the future and are more hopeful about their prospects. As people age, they learn to place higher value on the present, perhaps because they are more satisfied with their lives or because their expectations have diminished.
For this study, the researchers conducted several tests, including one where participants of different age groups were asked on what they would spend $100. Not altogether surprisingly, the 20 and 30 year olds opted for buying possessions or fun experiences, while the older folks were more interested in something calmer, like a spa treatment and the likes.
Dr. Mogilner warned that her research should not lead to further stereotyping of generational differences. Individuals vary considerably in how much excitement or tranquility affects their sense of happiness. “People should expect the things that make them happy and their experience of happiness to change,” she said.
Still, strikingly similar results were reported after a 2008 Gallop poll, which found that people tend to become happier as they get older “by almost any measure.” In a telephone survey that covered 340,000 people between the ages 18 to 85 from every part of the country, pollsters asked various questions about personal interests, aspirations, concerns, worries as well as overall life satisfaction. The data showed that most people start out at the age of 18 feeling pretty good about their lives. Things change for the worse in the mid- to late 20s and it’s downhill from then until the age of 50. At that point, there seems to occur a sharp reversal. People start getting happier, seemingly independent of their particular circumstances. By the time they reach 85, they are more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.
“It’s a very encouraging fact that we can expect to be happier in our early 80s than we were in our 20s,” said Dr. Andrew J. Oswald, professor of psychology at Warwick Business School in England, who has published several studies on the subject of human happiness. “It’s not being driven predominantly by things that happen in life. It’s something very deep and quite human that seems to be driving this,” he added.
There may be more than just one reason for a possible connection between aging and increasing contentment. “It could be that there are environmental changes, or it could be psychological changes how we view the world, or it could even be biological – for example brain chemistry or endocrine changes,” said Dr. Arthur Stone, author of a separate study based on the Gallup survey.
If you don’t buy the idea that happiness grows over time, you are not alone. When asked, older participants in similar surveys often report having been the happiest in their 30s. By contrast, younger participants mostly anticipate a decline of happiness when they reach old age.
“It is possible that people misremember how happy they were in the past, putting rose-colored glasses on as they reflect on bygone years,” said Dr. Heather Pond Lacey of the University of Michigan’s Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine, who conducted her own research on the subject, which was published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. “After all, old age is associated with real deterioration […], including failing health and diminishing financial resources, as well as the onset of widowhood and other social losses. So the question remains, given the difficulties of old age, why don’t people become less happy as they get older?”
While no one has come up with any definite answers yet, there are plenty of theories why the inevitable decline through aging does not necessarily dim people’s spirits. They may get better at handling the curve balls life throws at them. They may become more patient. Their past experiences may help them to put things in perspective. They may be able to focus more on the positive and overlook setbacks. And, as the years pass, people may lower their expectations and set more realistic goals, which makes success and satisfaction more likely.
Another reason may be that we are just surprised to realize that life is not necessarily over after a certain age. Perhaps, cultural influences play a role here. In our youth-oriented society, it seems unfathomable to think that older folks should be happier than younger ones, despite the loss of physical beauty and vitality.
But there is also an element of comfort in this for all of us. No matter how dire the warnings and predictions about the graying of America may sound, there is a good chance that an aging America will be the happiest America we have ever seen. And that’s something to look forward to as well.