Happiness grows with age, says new study

From top left: Henri Matisse, Pixar’s ‘Up’, Fauja Singh and Maggie Smith in ‘Quartet’.

Many people dread growing old. But a growing body of research suggests that this is a mistake: according to a new study, we tend to enjoy the height of contentment in our twilight years.

Pete Townshend was only 20 years old when he recorded one of the most famous lyrics in pop history: ‘Hope I die before I get old,’ he sneered in The Who’s 1965 hit ‘My Generation’. It was a rebellious, provocative stab at a fuddy-duddy establishment; but it also expresses a belief that many genuinely hold.

Old age is often imagined as a depressing period of physical and mental decline, in which we are condemned to loneliness, boredom and irrelevance. Yet according to a surprising new study, this could hardly be further from the truth.

Researchers from the University of Florida analysed data collected over thirty years, during which subjects were repeatedly surveyed on their general wellbeing. Instead of becoming sadder as they aged, they consistently reported higher levels of life satisfaction. As we get older, the researchers concluded, we become happier and more fulfilled.

This might seem implausible. But evidence that our twilight years can, in fact, be sunny has been mounting for years. In another recent study, psychologists monitored the daily emotions of people in a range of age groups; over-65s reported emotional distress three times less often than their juniors. They were less stressed, less angry and less anxious, and found it easier to focus on positive things. Also, when older people are sad, they are far more capable of simply accepting it.

Encouraging news for an era in which lives are growing longer and an ever greater proportion of people are elderly. The average life expectancy grew more in the 20th Century than it did in the rest of human history combined.

So what is this secret key to happiness which older people appear to possess? ‘When we recognise we don’t have all the time in the world,’ says one expert on ageing, ‘we see our priorities most clearly.’ Young people are constantly seeking novelty and striving after distant goals. By old age, we know what makes us happy and satisfied and can devote our time to what we love, whether that is running marathons, creating art or simply watching the cricket.

Wisdom of the ages

Can we all learn something from the attitude of our elders?

Of course, say some: the secret to a good life is accepting what you have and learning to appreciate it. Nobody can ever find satisfaction if they are always craving something new, something more or something different – and the earlier we learn that, the better.

But others find this philosophy of acceptance depressing: novelty and ambition are the things that give life meaning, they say. Without them, what’s the point? Simple contentment is all very well after a life of hard work; but until we are old and grey, satisfaction is only a symptom of complacency.

You Decide

  1. From your own experience, do you think it’s true that people get happier as they get older?
  2. Is it better to be satisfied and contented or striving and ambitious?

Activities

  1. Imagine you could communicate with the person you were when you were five years younger. Write a short letter outlining a few important things you have learned.
  2. Think of a book, film or television series that features an elderly character, and write a review focusing on what it says about old age. Is it a positive portrayal? Do you think it is accurate?

Some People Say...

“Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.’Maurice Chevalier”

What do you think?

Q & A

Great! So I can look forward to a life of steadily growing satisfaction?
It’s not quite that simple. Several studies, for instance, have suggested that happiness generally experiences a substantial dip between the ages of 30 and 50, before soaring to record levels of fulfillment in the 60s and beyond. Of course, there are other factors that affect happiness besides your age.
Like what?
One picked up by this latest study is the economic climate. People raised in times of economic hardship report lower levels of happiness throughout their adult life, and those who struggle with material deprivation are understandably less upbeat. But money isn’t always the answer: once incomes reach a medium-to-high level, the correlation with happiness decreases fast.

Word Watch

Life satisfaction
The study examined two different cohorts, one surveyed at regular intervals over the past 30 years and the other surveyed in the late 1970s. They were asked to rate the truth of statements about their recent mood, such as ‘I enjoyed life’ and ‘I was happy’. Though older people weren’t always happier than younger ones, they tended to be more satisfied than they had been at earlier stages of life.
Focus on positive things
In this study, subjects were asked to look at photographs showing positive and negative scenes. When asked to recall what they had seen, older people were far more likely to remember the happy images than the distressing ones.
Running marathons
Fauja Singh, for instance, kept running marathons until he was 101 years old. He finally hung up his boots last week, but he says that his hobby has brought him great happiness.
Creating art
One of the images that accompanies this article features the French artist Henri Matisse, who kept on attempting new styles of painting even after he was confined to his bed.

Subjects

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