Do we really get happier as we get older? A new study shows this to be true – more than ever.
My New Old Self is on record as being a sucker for any claim that starts with the words “A new study shows…” I also confessed in a past blog post to being unduly compelled by scientific research confirming that something I like doing is actually good for me. Examples include studies headlined “Chocolate protects against memory loss” and “Red wine prevents Alzheimer’s disease”.
Some studies seem to confirm the intuitively obvious, while others challenge conventional wisdom. The latter fall into the category of Surprising Findings, like studies over the past decade describing a “U-shaped theory of Happiness and Aging”.
“A large literature in behavioral and social sciences has found that human wellbeing follows a U-shape over age. Some theories have assumed that the U-shape is caused by unmet expectations that are felt painfully in midlife but beneficially abandoned and experienced with less regret during old age.”
– Dr. Hannes Schwandt, “Unmet Aspirations as an Explanation for the Age U-Shape in Human Wellbeing”, London School of Economics Centre for Economic Performance
More Studies on U-Shaped Happiness
According to a confirming study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, the lowest point of the U is the age of 46. Researchers at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia say that after this point happiness steadily increases as we get older.
However, studies also show that no study is immutable. Research is dynamic and new studies can overturn past findings. This seems to be the case with the U-Shaped theory. It has recently been challenged by the findings of researchers at University of California School of Medicine in San Diego.
“We did not find such a mid-life dip in well-being. Participants reported that they felt better about themselves and their lives year upon year, decade after decade.”
Update: ever more happiness as we age!
According to this latest study on happiness and aging, things will only get better over the years, mental health-wise. Forget the U, this study shows that it’s one straight line heading upwards – for the rest of our lives. Older people evidenced better mental health than the youngest group in the study. This was the case even though older people, including the ones surveyed, are less physically and cognitively able.
Why is it that older people appear to be more happy and less stressed than younger people? The researchers offer no definitive explanation, proposing a wide range of potential reasons. There is talk of age bringing wisdom. There is mention of older people scoring higher in the recently introduced psychological measurement called Emotional Intelligence.
It could just be that older people may have learned not to sweat the small stuff. This view is backed up by brain studies of the amygdala in older people. It shows that they respond less to stressful or negative images than those in younger people. Or it could be because there is less big stuff as career responsibilities and family obligations wane.
Don’t sweat – forget! – the bad stuff
Another theory for the year-on-year increase in happiness is that as we age we recall fewer memories of bad experiences. Is this psycho-speak for forgetfulness? If so, it’s a welcome up side to age-related memory loss.
Unfortunately, there seems a down side to this latest study. It has some potentially serious limitations. There is the intrinsic aspect of what is known as Survivor Bias. Less healthy adults – mentally as well as physically – tend not survive into old age.
Another potential probem is that the study did not include people who had dementia, were terminally ill or lived in a care home. Published in the the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, the findings are based on interviews conducted by phone with people aged 18 to 85. And where did they all live? In sunny San Diego, California. So this study not only excluded no one who was sick, and also none bummed out by endless grey skies. It would seem that several factors potentially contributing to unhappiness were thus eliminated. But hey, I’m no Happiologist.
Happy aging – unhappy youth?
I have other concerns, notably around the implications of this study for young people. The findings do give them a lot of happiness to look forward to in their later lives. But they need support through the emotional stresses of their less happy 20s and 30s. Especially since other studies indicate a recent trend towards worse mental health in young adults. They are experiencing more depression and anxiety than youth in the recent past. The new study on happiness over the ages could offer potential benefit to unhappy young people.
“We need to understand mechanisms underlying better mental health in older age, in spite of more physical ailments. That would help develop broad-based interventions to promote mental health in all age groups, including youth.”
– Dr. Dilip Jeste, director of the Center on Healthy Aging at UC San Diego
Despite this study’s limitations, and its worrying implications for those too young to be yet on the ever-upward happiness path, I’m going to put my faith is this new theory. I aim to be a believer in incrementally increasing happiness, to the grave.
I do realise that some future study may overturn these latest findings. Even so, I may still benefit from the Placebo Effect. If I believe that science has proven that I will get ever happier, year after year, maybe I will.