Study: Older people happier

By Ami Albernaz
October 1st, 2010

If you’re facing down 50 with some degree of dread, you may find comfort in a study that suggests people who’ve passed that milestone tend to experience less stress and greater happiness on a daily basis than do younger adults.

Analyzing data from a 2008 Gallup phone survey of over 340,000 Americans between ages 18 and 85, a research team led by Arthur Stone, Ph.D., professor and vice chairman of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Stony Brook University, concluded that not only do feelings of overall well-being improve as people age – replicating findings from previous research – but that day-to-day emotions also seem to be more positive.

To test day-to-day emotions, or “hedonic” well-being, respondents were asked if they had felt enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, anger and sadness during a large portion of the day prior to the phone interview. While those over 50 reported being happier overall than younger people, the difference was less dramatic than was the apparent drop-off in stress and anger, which seemed to continue declining throughout their 60s and 70s.

“Some thought there might have been an upward swing in negative emotions [as people get older], since you hear a lot about depression among the elderly and people getting sick,” says Stone, adding he was surprised by the findings related to day-to-day well-being.

Marital and employment status and having children at home did not seem to affect the responses.

While the survey did not attempt to uncover the reasons behind the differences between younger and older people, Stone brought up a theory by Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen Ph.D., that basically holds younger people, being future-oriented, might take on difficult, stressful tasks for potential gain down the road.

“When you’re older, you may not make those kind of decisions,” Stone says. “You might say, ‘I already know what I’ve achieved, or what I haven’t. … I’m going to select activities that bring me more immediate pleasure.'”

He adds that as people age, they may also tend to focus more on the positive.

“People are gaining wisdom, and it’s impacting the way they live,” he says.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has written extensively on aging and fulfillment, says people should be cautious about what they read into the study’s findings. Because it was cross-sectional rather than longitudinal, the comparison between the younger and older respondents might not be fair. She notes the possibility of a “survivor effect” – that the older people in the study were the ones who had the emotional skills to overcome adversity.

Whitbourne adds that when considering happiness, fulfillment – having a passion and a sense of purpose – should be taken into account.

“A quick happiness or hedonic scale isn’t tapping into the more in-depth processes that are going on in people’s lives,” she says. “Fulfillment for many people isn’t all about pleasure.”


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