Old age is usually thought of as a period of gradual decline, of failing bodies and unfirm minds. If asked, most people would probably tell you they believe people become more grumpy as they age.
But research has shown – time and time again – that the opposite is actually true – older people are happier, and it’s younger people who are stressed, anxious, worried and sad.
“Hope I die before I get old”
Even when older people are asked to rate their own contentment, they anticipate younger people will be happier.
Academics Peter Ubel, Heather Lacey and Dylan Smith from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University in the United States, asked a group of 30 year olds and a group of 70 year olds which group they thought would be happier. Both groups said they expected the 30-year-olds to be happier.
The researchers then asked the same groups to rate their own well-being. The 70-year-olds rated themselves more highly for happiness.
To make their point clear, the academics famously noted that Pete Townshend of The Who wrote when he was 20, “Hope I die before I get old”. Now aged 74, Mr Townshend is considered a rock legend. He spends his time holidaying around the world, writing books and music, and is in the middle of a world tour with Roger Daltrey.
Sounds like old age is better than Mr Townshend anticipated.
In fact, people tend to be at their most unhappy in their late 40s, early 50s (this journalists’ own age!).
Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at Warwick Business School, and David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, compared people’s happiness across ages and from 72 countries. They found that in most countries, people are at their unhappiest in their 40s and early 50s. “Happy people are disproportionately the young and old (not middle-aged),” they write in their paper.
The global average for unhappiness, the researchers found, bottomed out at 46 – then it picked up again.
Stress, worry, anger, sadness increase in middle age
Studies show that the mid-40s is a decade during which people commonly experience challenging emotions.
A study by Arthur Stone, Joseph Schwartz and Joan Broderick of Stony Brook University, and Angus Deaton of Princeton, used telephone surveys to examine how some of our common emotions vary over the course of our lives.
They found stress and anger decline steeply from the early 20s. Worry rises through middle age then falls away. Sadness rises in middle age, and then bottoms out out in the 70s.
On the other hand, enjoyment and happiness decline in middle age, but then recover from the 50s.
Why is it so?
Scientists aren’t really sure why people are happier in their old age, but there are some theories.
Researchers Heather Urry and James Gross found older people are happier because they are better at regulating their emotions. The discovered that when older people were shown pictures of faces or situations, they tended to concentrate on and better recall the happier ones more than the negative ones.
Other studies have shown that as people grow older they gravitate more towards situations that will make them happy, for example, they’re less likely to spend time with friends who lower their spirits.
Research has also shown that older people are better at moving on after loss or disappointment over unmet goals, and instead turn their focus towards more achievable goals that will improve their wellbeing.
There is also a theory that as humans get older, they begin to recognise their own mortality. They become better at living for the moment, enjoying the here and now, because they know they are closer to death.
In 2012, Laura Carstensend of Stanford University, said older people put more emphasis on finding emotional meaning and satisfaction in the present, rather than expending resources on doing things for their future.
She told The Economist, “When young people look at older people, they think how terrifying it must be to be nearing the end of your life. But older people know what matters most.”
“Young people will go to cocktail parties because they might meet somebody who will be useful to them in the future, even though nobody I know actually likes going to cocktail parties.”
“Getting old is better than the other option”
Expecting to live into our 80s, and even beyond, is one of the great privileges of living in the 21st century, and has been made possible by brilliant advances in science and medicine. These are unique times, and our good fortune should give us reason to be happy.
It’s a bit like George Clooney said. “I’m kind of comfortable with getting old because it’s better than the other option, which is being dead.”
Main image: Pete Townshend on tour. Image: The Who website.