The Frontal Cortex

Age and Happiness

The correlation is pretty clear: the older we get, the happier we become.

Only in the last decade have researchers begun to measure happiness across the life span and, in doing so, try to understand why older people tend to be so content.

The explanation doesn’t appear to be biological — some chemical in the brain that mellows us just when all those plump neurons needed for thinking and memory are shriveling up. Rather, most scientists now think that experience and the mere passage of time gradually motivate people to approach life differently. The blazing-to-freezing range of emotions experienced by the young blends into something more lukewarm by later life, numerous studies show. Older people are less likely to be caught up in their emotions and more likely to focus on the positive, ignoring the negative.

I also wonder if the increased happiness of older people might also be the result of not having kids around anymore. As Daniel Gilbert notes, “The only known symptom of the empty-nest syndrome is increased smiling. Careful studies of how women feel as they go about their daily activities show that they are less happy when taking care of their children than when eating, exercising, shopping, napping, or watching television.” According to the self-reports of parents, looking after the kids is only marginally better than mopping the floor.

Final thought: are older people less vulnerable to status anxiety?

Comments

  1. #1 paul01
    October 13, 2007

    I think your final thought may be right on the money.

    paul01(age 63)

  2. #2 fred lapides
    October 13, 2007

    old people tend to be a bit nasty, cynical, depressed, sad. Why? they know things that younger people will eventually find out! As for kids: I adore my kid(s) and will sure miss them when the last one is gone from the house. I have a son, 43, a son, 41, a son, 19, and living with me, a daughter, 14…
    Me? 78 and with a Bride 29 years younger. We have been married now 24 years. (2nd marriage)

  3. #3 amybuilds
    October 13, 2007

    I hired someone to mop my floors so I can spend more time with my kids. If you don’t have kids you probably can’t understand this – from the outside it looks like drudgery, from the inside it’s… bliss.

  4. #4 agnostic
    October 13, 2007

    Well, there’s certainly some biological basis, and it’s definitely involved with the brain rather than the fingernails, but it may not be as simple as one chemical (although that could be, and we just don’t know enough to see it).

    This is a pretty old result in the personality literature: people become a bit less Extraverted, meaning they experience positive emotions less frequently, but they also become less Neurotic / Emotionally Unstable, meaning they experience negative emotions less frequently too. And given that they become more Agreeable and Conscientious, others probably treat them more kindly, which might make them feel better.

    These group-level effects are pretty slight, though, and there’s still plenty of individual variation. If you’re a cranky workaholic at age 30, that’s a much better predictor of what you’ll be like at age 60 than just plugging in age = 60 into the group-level regression equation.

  5. #5 alexa harrington
    October 15, 2007

    One of my secret job wishes is to work in a retirement community. It’s a job I’ve never heard anyone else want. It’s probably messy as well as difficult to watch people deteriorate mentally and physically at a rapid rate. However, I have always been drawn to the older folks because in their lucid moments, they are way less spazzy than the rest of us. We young’uns freak out daily over every bump in the road. Maybe it’s that old people have learned to not sweat the small stuff. It’s a good reminder for whippersnappers like me.

    Plus, almost any problem I might be dealing with will be miniscule when put up against theirs: they will probably be dead soon. If they can be cheerful and content in the face of impending doom, then why can’t I skip along a little more happily in my still-working body and think good thoughts with my still-capable mind?

    Biologically speaking, we’re all technically supposed to be dead decades sooner than we’ve been keeling lately. I don’t see an evolutionary advantage to living a super long time. Unless it’s to fund your grandchildren’s college educations, thereby increasing their chances of survival, which in turn will guarantee to continuation of your line.

  6. #6 Elizabeth, MD, PhD
    October 17, 2007

    I wonder what OLD means here? My guess would be anyone who has some level of functioning compatible with their desires has the potential to be happy; those who can no longer do what they desire because of ‘aging’ may not be as happy. Some in the latter group may merely be grateful to ‘still be here.’ No doubt, there are many who are not happy with their declining functional status.

  7. #7 pgnco
    October 22, 2007

    As someone who has published on this subject, I am very familiar with much of the literature on aging and happiness. Although Jonah is correct in saying that a number of different studies do suggest a positive correlation between age and happiness, alas, the correlation is “not pretty clear.” For instance, while a number of different studies have found that different indicators of happiness increase with age, such as life satisfaction going up and negative affect going down, these effects are less salient the older your cohort gets. So while it is true that 30 year old scores for happiness are lower than 60 years olds, a number of recent studies find that this effect becomes less pronounced (or even reverses) when we start looking at individuals in their 70s and beyond. Indeed, it does matter what we mean when we say “old.” I think agnostic’s point about individual variation is crucial. My own research with a cohort of over a thousand men from the Normative Aging Study found considerable variation in the way they changed in positive and negative affect over time. I think next wave of research will look beyond group level effects (old vs. young) and try to answer a more interesting question: what predicts this variation. In other words, why is that some individuals become happier with age while other find the process more difficult. Although we have some very likely candidates (genetics, personality, health, etc) much remains to be studied.

  8. #8 lyss
    October 6, 2011

    I think that it is definitely possible that people do not experience “happiness” when taking care of their children. However, I think that having kids is for most people a positive experience. I feel that many people find contentment in taking care of their family, although they might not be smiling and giggling for the entirety of it.

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