Age and happiness

Age and happiness

Get Older, Get Happier — It Happens


August 5, 2007

Wall Street Journal

It gets better with age.

Some people think those who are decades older have less reason to be joyful.

But more people in their 60s and 70s report being happy than do those in their 40s, according to a recent survey conducted for bank HSBC of 21,000 people in 21 countries, spanning four age groups from 40 to 80.

Among U.S. respondents, 89% of those in their 70s and 87% of those in their 60s said they were happy most of the time in the previous week, versus 78% of those in their 40s who said that.

What’s the secret to aging happily? Good health and a decent standard of living don’t hurt — but those factors don’t play as big a part as you might think, researchers say.

The truth is, people generally get happier as they age, says Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and a professor of psychology at Stanford University.

“How often one feels sad, angry, disgusted, contemptuous — that frequency declines. And in addition to that, when negative emotions occur, they don’t last as long,” she says, citing research from her studies of people aged 18 to 100-plus.

Person-to-Person Variations

Of course, individuals’ happiness varies. Studies of twins indicate your genes likely make you more or less optimistic, and the happiness of your parents affects you, says Peter Ubel, a professor of medicine and psychology at the University of Michigan, who has conducted research on happiness.

But unhappiness is generally not connected to aging, Mr. Ubel and other researchers say. “I know a lot of unhappy 80-year-olds, but if you look, on average there are a lot more grumpy young men than grumpy old men. We just don’t call them grumpy. We call them angry or irritable,” Mr. Ubel says.

Health matters, too: Very sick people aren’t as happy as healthy people. But that’s true at all ages.

Indeed, “if you compare younger and older people in poor health, older people are doing better than younger people,” Ms. Carstensen says, adding that older people even experience lower rates of depression.

“Even among frail older adults, morale is often comparable and at times higher” than younger adults’, adds Gene Cohen, a psychiatrist and gerontologist and director of George Washington University’s Center on Aging, Health and Humanities.

Ms. Carstensen says greater happiness is likely related to a desire to make the most of one’s remaining time. “When people perceive time is limited, they focus more on well-being,” she says. For instance, “they get rid of the riff-raff in their lives and select the people who are most important.”

Mr. Cohen says brain function changes, too. Brain-imaging studies find older peoples’ brains react less intensely, and for less time, to negative emotions. Improved morale as we age “is probably a combination of…perspective on life and changes to the amygdalae,” a part of the brain that processes emotion, he says.

Money Isn’t Everything

You’d think money would drive happiness. Not necessarily. “Money matters very little to happiness, except at very low levels of money,” Mr. Ubel says.

For those struggling to pay a mortgage or buy food, “a little money can have a huge influence on their happiness,” he says. “Once you get a bit of security and comfort, whether you make $40,000 or $440,000 a year has a very small influence on happiness.”

Uncertainty matters more than money and “has more influence on happiness than most other circumstances,” Mr. Ubel says. He notes, for instance, that if you are offered a steady, yet small, stream of income for life, “no matter what your previous income had been, you’ll adjust.”

Security of Insurance

One lesson: Remember that insurance can offer important peace of mind, particularly in the event of an unexpected health problem, Mr. Ubel says.

“If people are smart, they’ll invest wisely in [disability] insurance. Even though it reduces your current income a little, it gives you that security,” he explains.

“We tend to think that having more money so we can purchase more goods will bring us happiness, but there is such a small relationship between how much money you have and how happy you are,” Mr. Ubel says. “It makes more sense to have a little more insurance than having the latest iPhone. It’s good for your happiness.”

Working Retirement

If you connect happiness with a longer life span, try staying active. Longer lives are correlated with people continuing to engage in activities they feel are important, says Robert Butler, president of the International Longevity Center in New York.

It has to be ‘something that’s substantive and matters, such as taking care of a grandchild, volunteer activity three days a week, continuing to work rather than retiring,” Mr. Butler says. ‘something that makes a difference in the person’s life is life-enhancing. They enjoy it more and live longer than those who have nothing in their lives.”

Younger adults might consider setting the stage now for such activities, Mr. Cohen says. “They may want to think about how they can approach ongoing education, exploring different areas that would set the stage for development later on. Maybe they could take a class now and later become a photographer.”