Older, Wiser AND Happier?

Studies suggest people become happier as they age.

By Leah Lancione

It’s no secret that as you age physically, things seem to decline, whether you are 30 or 70. Yet a recent study says people tend to become happier as they age mentally. A paper written by Heather L. Urry of Tufts University and James J. Gross of Stanford University and published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests the reason may be that older people are better at regulating their emotions.

The paper also postulates that in addition to changes in the brain as we age, younger individuals aren’t adept at guessing what will affect their happiness. Older people, on the other hand, may have more opportunities to change situations that make them discontented. Example: They’re no longer forced to stay in unfulfilling or stressful jobs. Also, they tend to have smaller and closer social networks and can choose to pursue only those relationships which elicit positive feelings.

A massive Gallup poll conducted in 2008 and subsequently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also found that people get happier as they get older. A New York Times article described the poll results this way: “On the global measure, people start out at age 18 feeling pretty good about themselves, and 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.” So, what are some other possible causes for an overall increase in well-being as we age? Well, the study also intimates that environmental, psychological and even biological factors, i.e., brain chemistry, play a role in the increase in overall life satisfaction and reduce in stress as people age.

Though the survey and a succeeding study did not seek to uncover what specifically makes older people happier, it is encouraging to think that life continues to get better after mid-life and the everyday stressors that formerly caused anxiety have less of an effect on our well-being.  So where does this enhanced emotional stability and contentment come from?

“As people age, they’re more emotionally balanced and better able to solve highly emotional problems,” says Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. “We may be seeing a larger group of people who can get along with a greater number of people. They care more and are more compassionate about problems, and that may lead to a more stable world.” This sounds like good news for the United States since “baby boomers” started turning 65 in 2011, and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of older people will increase dramatically from 2010-2030. “The older population in 2030 is projected to be twice as large as their counterparts in 2000, growing from 35 million to 72 million and representing nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population.”

But, not so fast.  A better, more peaceful world isn’t quite in the forecast since although the U.S. (as in other countries) will, in theory, be heavily populated with older and happier people, there are major social and economic impacts that will affect this country. For one, the issue of health care and the shift from acute care to that of more chronic conditions, will be a primary concern as will the need for more care facilities and public programs that provide income support and long-term health care assistance. The economic strains will be considerable as well. The International Journal of Epidemiology reports, “As the population ages, public expenditures are projected to grow as a percent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product).”

For further reading on the aging study, check out the New York Times article online at www.nytimes.com/2010/06/01/health/research/01happy.html or the U.S. Census Bureau statistics obtained from the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-related Statistics at www.agingstats.gov/Main_Site/Data/2012_Documents/Population.aspx

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