Does getting older mean getting happier?

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

It is inevitable. The muscles weaken. Hearing and vision fade. We get wrinkled and stooped. We can’t run, or even walk, as fast as we used to. We have aches and pains in parts of our bodies we never even noticed before.  We develop chronic, progressive illnesses like heart disease.  We get old.

It sounds miserable, but apparently it is not. According to the New York Times, a large U.S. survey of over 340,000 people aged 18-85 has found that by almost any measure, people get happier as they get older, and researchers are not sure why.

The Times reported that in the study’s global measure of well-being, people start out at age 18 feeling pretty good about themselves.  But then, apparently, life begins to throw curve balls. They feel worse and worse until they hit 50. At that point, there is a sharp reversal, and people keep getting happier as they age. By the time they are 85, they are even more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18. 

In measuring immediate well-being, the Times outlined statistical trends for factors that affect day-to-day well-being – factors like stress, worry, anger and sadness,  For example:

  • stress declines from age 22 onward, reaching its lowest point at age 85
  • worry stays fairly steady until 50, then sharply drops off
  • anger decreases steadily from 18 on
  • sadness rises to a peak at 50, declines to age 73, then rises slightly again to 85

Enjoyment and happiness have similar statistical curves: they both decrease gradually until we hit 50, rise steadily for the next 25 years, and then decline very slightly at the end, but they never again reach the low point of our early 50s.

Unlike prior studies, men and women surveyed showed very similar age profiles of well-being.

Dr. Arthur A. Stone, the lead author of this study, explains the study’s conclusions, published in  the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

“It could be that there are environmental changes. Or it could be psychological changes about the way we view the world, or it could even be biological – for example brain chemistry or endocrine changes.”

Coincidentally, my own community (Victoria, British Columbia, Canada) has just released its annual Greater Victoria Wellbeing Survey that looked specifically at the subject of happiness and its link to our physical and mental health. What was surprising, according to local health care planner Mike Pennock, was the number of respondents who were not particularly healthy, yet still rated themselves as happy.  Among those who rated their health as only poor or fair, one-third reported a life satisfaction score of 80 out of 100. Pennock explains:

“When we looked at why this was true, one of the key factors was social support, family and friends. 

“Even if they had many chronic health problems, if they were able to draw on those other resources they were still able to maintain a fairly high level of wellbeing.”

This connection to resources seems to be especially important as we age, and as these chronic health problems develop. Cultivating a sense of community and drawing on factors like social support, family and friends seem to help make up for health issues associated with aging.

For more on this, and particularly about women’s unique tend-and-befriend response to stress, read How Our Girlfriends Can Help Us Get Through the Toughest Times

Read the rest of the New York Times piece.

 Q:  Are you generally happier now than when you were 18?


3 thoughts on “Does getting older mean getting happier?

  1. This made my day. I am DEFINITELY happier now than when I was 18. Would not turn back the clock, no sir!

    Thx for this, Miss Carolyn. Wonderful perspective here esp for all of us aging boomers. You’re as young as you feel, right? Love your site here!!


  2. Pingback: James

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