How does happiness change as we age? Maybe you assume that children live a happy, carefree life, the teen and young adult years are full of turmoil and confusion, middle aged adults are happier, wiser, and more settled, and old people are depressed and grumpy.
If so, you’re wrong. A recent report published in Psychological Science, an AARP study, and research by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) all point to the same conclusion. While the statistics in these happiness studies vary slightly, most research agrees that generally older people – and even the younger generation – are happier than us baby boomers (especially those ages 49-64). In fact, a 2012 AARP study confirmed there is a U-shaped happiness curve with the early 50’s as the lowest point of well-being. (See http://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-06-2012/happiness-report-2012.html for more information.)
As a 53-year-old, this raised my eyebrows. I know from personal experience that hitting the mid-century mark can be a bit disenchanting. In my case, it meant menopause which resulted in insomnia and panic attacks, a colonoscopy, shoulder surgery, a dental implant, and watching my parents’ health rapidly decline. Many boomers face worries about financial security and retirement, the difficulties of raising teenagers, looming college tuitions, adult children moving back home, and caring for aging parents, which all can cause middle age melancholy.
Despite these facts, however, I was still surprised to learn that my age group is statistically the unhappiest. While it’s true, we boomers have our challenges, let’s face facts – so do old people. So why are they happier than us?
Before I continue, I’m not saying that some old people don’t fit the typical stereotype and are lonely, depressed, cranky, and miserable. Truth be known, we all know old people that make us secretly vow we’ll never be like them when we face our final years. But despite stereotypes of grumpy old men and women, several studies show they view themselves as happier than us. That should at least give us pause for thought.
A variety of theories are floating around why this is the case, but most hypotheses base these happiness findings less on life circumstances and more on a change in outlook that kicks in after middle age. As you probably already know, the older we get, the wiser we get. Some psychologists believe that cognitive processes are responsible for older people’s happiness including focusing on good memories and pushing aside negative ones. Other studies discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods, for example, eliminating friends, family, or acquaintances who bring negativity to their life. Older adults are also better at letting go of disappointment and regret. Facing their own mortality and aware their time is limited, the elderly tend to feel more grateful and savor the moment. This can all lead to contentment and tranquility.
Why wait until we’re older to adapt some of these strategies? Don’t gasp, but maybe it’s time for our authority-averse, rebellious boomer generation to change our attitude about listening to our elders. Perhaps we can learn something from the generation that precedes us and find our bliss now.