17265Happiness May Come With Age, Study Says
- Jun 2, 2010From the New York Times May 31, 2010
Happiness May Come With Age, Study Says
By NICHOLAS BAKALAR
It is inevitable. The muscles weaken. Hearing and
vision fade. We get wrinkled and stooped. We can't
run, or even walk, as fast as we used to. We have
aches and pains in parts of our bodies we never
even noticed before. We get old.
It sounds miserable, but apparently it is not. A large
Gallup poll has found that by almost any measure,
people get happier as they get older, and researchers
are not sure why.
"It could be that there are environmental changes,"
said Arthur A. Stone, the lead author of a new study
based on the survey, "or it could be psychological
changes about the way we view the world, or it
could even be biological for example brain chemistry
or endocrine changes."
The telephone survey, carried out in 2008, covered
more than 340,000 people nationwide, ages 18 to 85,
asking various questions about age and sex, current
events, personal finances, health and other matters.
The survey also asked about "global well-being" by
having each person rank overall life satisfaction
on a 10-point scale, an assessment many people may
make from time to time, if not in a strictly formalized way.
Finally, there were six yes-or-no questions: Did
you experience the following feelings during a large
part of the day yesterday: enjoyment, happiness,
stress, worry, anger, sadness. The answers, the
researchers say, reveal "hedonic well-being," a
person's immediate experience of those psychological
states, unencumbered by revised memories or subjective
judgments that the query about general life satisfaction
might have evoked.
The results, published online May 17 in the Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences, were good news
for old people, and for those who are getting old.
On the global measure, people start out at age 18
feeling pretty good about themselves, and then,
apparently, life begins to throw curve balls. They
feel worse and worse until they hit 50. At that point,
there is a sharp reversal, and people keep getting
happier as they age. By the time they are 85, they
are even more satisfied with themselves than they
were at 18.
In measuring immediate well-being yesterday's
emotional state the researchers found that stress
declines from age 22 onward, reaching its lowest
point at 85. Worry stays fairly steady until 50,
then sharply drops off. Anger decreases steadily
from 18 on, and sadness rises to a peak at 50,
declines to 73, then rises slightly again to 85.
Enjoyment and happiness have similar curves: they
both decrease gradually until we hit 50, rise steadily
for the next 25 years, and then decline very slightly
at the end, but they never again reach the low point
of our early 50s.
Other experts were impressed with the work. Andrew J. Oswald,
a professor of psychology at Warwick Business School
in England, who has published several studies on
human happiness, called the findings important and,
in some ways, heartening. "It's a very encouraging
fact that we can expect to be happier in our early 80s
than we were in our 20s," he said. "And it's not
being driven predominantly by things that happen in
life. It's something very deep and quite human that
seems to be driving this."
Dr. Stone, who is a professor of psychology at the
State University of New York at Stony Brook, said
that the findings raised questions that needed more
study. "These results say there are distinctive
patterns here," he said, "and it's worth some research
effort to try to figure out what's going on. Why at
age 50 does something seem to start to change?"
The study was not designed to figure out which factors
make people happy, and the poll's health questions
were not specific enough to draw any conclusions
about the effect of disease or disability on happiness
in old age. But the researchers did look at four
possibilities: the sex of the interviewee, whether
the person had a partner, whether there were children
at home and employment status. "These are four
reasonable candidates," Dr. Stone said, "but they
don't make much difference."
For people under 50 who may sometimes feel gloomy,
there may be consolation here. The view seems a
bit bleak right now, but look at the bright side:
you are getting old.
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