Older, wiser…and happier!

Everyone knows that young people are much happier than old people.

There’s just one problem with this truism. Like many other things that “everyone knows,” it isn’t actually true.

That’s the conclusion of a unique study recently carried out by researchers at VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System and the University of Michigan.

The researchers conducted an online survey of more than 540 adults who were either between the ages of 21 and 40 or over age 60. The participants, all part of a larger group of individuals who had previously volunteered to take online surveys, were pretty equally divided between men and women. About 35 percent of the younger group and 24 percent of the older group were from ethnic minorities.

Each was asked to rate his or own current level of happiness on a scale of 1 to 10, then to rate how happy an average person of their age would be. Next, they were asked to either remember how happy they were, or predict how happy they would be, at age 30 and age 70, and to predict how happy the average person would be at those ages.

The results both were and weren’t surprising. On the not-surprising side of things, both young people and older people thought that young people were happier: people of all ages thought that the average 30 year old would be happier than the average 70 year old, and that the level of happiness would decline as people aged.

On the surprising side of things, however, the study also revealed that in fact people in the older group rated their current level of happiness significantly higher than the people in the younger group rated their current level of happiness. Happiness, this study (and other studies) suggest doesn’t decline with age, it increases.

And yet, the older people thought they must have actually been happier when they were younger. Either they were extremely happy when they were young, or they’re misremembering their own level of youthful happiness.

As well, younger people predicted they personally would be just as happy at age 70 as they were in their younger years: in other words, they thought other people’s happiness would decline with age, but not their own. (This is a common bias found over and over in studies: everyone sees him or herself as “above average,” which, by the very definition of average, obviously can’t be true.)

This isn’t the only study to show that people misjudge what would make them happy or unhappy, and what makes other people happy and unhappy. For example, Peter Ubel, M.D., the senior author of the new study, has conducted several other studies that have revealed that sick people are often surprisingly happy—sometimes just as happy as healthy people.

He says that while people believe that happiness is a matter of their personal circumstance—if good things happen they’ll experience long-lasting happiness, if bad things happen they’ll experience long-lasting misery—in fact happiness results more from people’s underlying emotional resources.

He thinks it’s likely that these resources increase with age, which is why older people are happier than they, or younger people, think they should be. “People get better at managing life’s ups and downs, and the result is that as they age, they become happier—even though their objective circumstances, such as their health, decline.”

Heather Lacey, Ph.D., the lead author of the study, said people actually learn to value their life more by overcoming adversities such as illness and the incremental infirmities of age. “What the sick learn from being sick, the rest of us come to over time,” she says.

The researchers are planning further studies to determine how much influence young people’s beliefs in the relative happiness of young and old have on the decisions they make about things that might affect their future health (smoking, for instance) or financial security (such as saving money).

The results of the current study may also help the researchers understand why some middle-aged people go to bizarre lengths to deny their own aging (the stereotypical mid-life crisis). They’ve recently conducted a new study on people between the ages of 40 and 60, and hope to present their results soon.

There’s a saying that “youth is wasted on the young.” But if, as this study suggests, older people don’t realize they’re happier now than they’ve ever been, you could just as well say “age is wasted on the old.”

UPDATE (June 15): This story from New Scientist may be related: “People do mellow with age, brain scans suggest.”

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2006/06/older-wiserand-happier/

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