Aging, the Secret to Happiness?
A dapper 90-year-old man wanders into a bar. He spies a nice-looking 80-year old woman and sits next to her. Trying to remember his best pick up lines, he says, "Tell me, do I come here often?"
You might think that with the decline in physical and mental abilities that so often accompany aging, people would get progressively less happy as they got older. But a new study recently published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that in spite of the memory issues and greater physical frailty that often accompany aging, happiness increases with age. And yes, you read that correctly: happiness increases with aging. The study showed that starting in their mid-fifties, most people experience a decrease in anger and stress, and an increase in general feelings of well-being.
The study, out of Stony Brook University in New York, analyzed data collected in a Gallup phone survey of 340,847 adults between the ages of 18 and 85. The adults were selected at random from a sample of the U.S. population representing various levels of education and income. Respondents were asked to rate their current lives on a scale of zero to ten, with zero being the worst possible life and ten being the best possible life. They were also asked about the "affective states" they experienced on the previous day. That is, they were asked to total up how much of the day they experienced happiness, anger, sadness, enjoyment, stress, and so on.
Arthur Stone from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science led the study. He and his colleagues found that subjects between the ages of 22 and 25 showed the highest levels of stress, while in people over the age of 50, stress levels decreased dramatically. Worry and sadness also declined significantly in those over 50, although sadness did begin to increase again in those over 70 -- but not so much as to outweigh the stress and anxiety of youth.
Dr. Stone commented, "You would think as chronic illness threatens, life would get worse, but that is not the case because people don't focus on the threats. They focus on the good things in life like family and friends." With that in mind, perhaps the reason that happiness peaks at 70 is that it's around that age that one's friends and contemporaries start moving on in significant numbers.
These results parallel the results of many earlier studies. A report delivered to the American Psychological Association in 2009 showed people in their 80s and 90s to be happier than younger people. And a Pew Research study showed that men between the ages of 20 and 29 were the least happy while men between the ages of 60 and 69 were the happiest. Another study in 2008 also came to similar conclusions. According to the author of that study, Dr. Yang Yang , a University of Chicago sociologist, "The good news is that with age comes happiness. Life gets better in one's perception as one ages."
Yang's study was based on face-to-face interviews conducted periodically between 1972 and 2004 with about 28,000 people between the ages of 18 and 88. Among other things, the study showed that although blacks and poor people start out less happy than whites and wealthier people, those differences disappear as the subjects age. In addition, the study showed that 88-year-olds were significantly happier than those between the ages of 18 to 20, with 33% of the former reporting that they were very happy compared to only 24% of the latter.
What does this all add up to? Why are older people happier, given their aches, pains, and the experience of peers dying around them? The researchers expressed puzzlement at the results, although Dr. Stone and colleagues theorize that, "older people are more effective at regulating their emotions than younger adults." It may also be that older adults tend to "recall fewer negative memories than younger adults." Apparently, the empty nest syndrome has nothing to do with the results, because the researchers controlled for that. They also controlled for unemployment and marital status, which had no impact. The study did find that women worried more, felt more stress, and were less happy than men at all ages.
The phenomenon may also have something to do with changing attitudes around aging. More people continue to work after 50, although they may be more likely in later life to engage in work they enjoy, with less focus on getting ahead or making money. This certainly reduces stress and adds to a sense of fulfillment. Also, older people now have more license to remain active in all areas of life, compared to a few generations ago when they were expected to sit around the fireplace in a rocker all day; and so in later years, they can enjoy life without the pressures of raising a family or punching the clock.
On the other hand, a cross-cultural study involving 74 countries indicated that there is a U-shaped curve to human happiness, with a mid-life crisis being almost inevitable, followed by increasing happiness. If this is the case, it may be that human happiness is biologically based. In other words, if you survive long enough, you'll eventually get happy in spite of yourself. All in all, perhaps there is something to the old saying that "Youth is wasted on the young."
In any event, following the Baseline of Health Program can only contribute to that sense of health and well being as we age. With that in mind, it pays to follow an anti-aging health program: to eat well, exercise, take the right supplements, and periodically do full-body detoxes so that you feel both happy and healthy in later years.