At 98 years old, my nana liked to visit the casino and go shopping. When she visited my family, we could count on her to sit quietly smiling, enjoying a whiskey, and probably plucking a few strawberries off someone else’s plate when she thought no one was looking. Her lackadaisical nature always struck me as an enigma, though. My nana’s life was not easy: she lived in Great Britain during World War II, lived through the deaths of two husbands and a son, and never had much money. As she aged, she became functionally deaf: on a good day, if you yelled and enunciated your words carefully, she could make out about half of what you said.

In light of her difficult circumstances, Nana’s happiness seemed paradoxical: how could someone who has been through so much difficulty, who can’t hear anything going on around her, and is physically deteriorating, be so content?

I’m not the first to wonder this. For example, researchers from the University of Michigan found that both young adults and older adults believed that younger people are generally happier than older ones. However, when each age cohort was asked to rate their own happiness, the older group came out ahead. A separate study asked people about their life satisfaction and how often they experienced emotions like stress and worry. Their data showed a U-shaped happiness curve, in which life satisfaction decreased from age 18 to about 50, when it steadily began to increase again. Even better, stress and anger seemed to decreased throughout the years, and self reports of worrying remained steady until age 50, when it also started to decline. These studies are not alone in showing a positive relationship between happiness and age in the later years. Some research does, however, suggest that life satisfaction begins to decline starting in the mid 70s or 3 to 5 years before death, but other work has found that when they took poor functional health into consideration, there was no longer a decline in happiness.

(WB ladder refers to their measure of global well-being)

(WB ladder refers to their measure of global well-being)

However, not all research on happiness and age have revealed such clear results. A larger study published in 2013 looked at reports of well-being, health, and other factors from more than 5,000 people over the span of 30 years. The researchers found that the older age group reported lower well-being than the younger age group, but when birth date was taken into account – because groups of people who are born around the same time might have gone through some of the same experiences – well-being actually increased over time. In other words, older people, particularly those who grew up during the Great Depression, reported low well-being from the first time they were surveyed. Even with such a rocky start, people who grew up during the Depression reported that their well-being increased over time, a finding that has been replicated in other studies. These longitudinal studies, which involve taking the same measurements from the same people over time, allow researchers to track how well-being changes within the same people over time.

If people become happier as they age, does this mean that they also experience fewer negative emotions? One study found that an increase in positive emotions does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with a decrease in negative emotions: people reported fewer negative feelings like anger or stress as they aged, but they also used fewer words that indicated happiness over time. These reports suggest that studying ‘happiness’ is complex – and the concept of well-being and happiness can not be appropriately conveyed using a single measurement.

Because the studies described so far measured happiness and well-being using different scales and questions and in different groups of people, we can expect some discrepancies in the findings. However, the overall picture is encouraging: old age and happiness seem to go hand-in-hand. Based on these findings, we can then ask: why do people seem to be happier as they age?

One explanation is that our definition of happiness changes as we get older. To find out what people of different ages truly mean when they say “I feel happy,” researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford looked at emotions reported on 12 million blogs to see if people of different ages used different language to describe happiness. They found that teenaged bloggers tended to talk about happiness as making them feel excited more than peaceful. As they analyzed progressively older groups of bloggers, people associated happiness with excitement significantly less and with peace significantly more.

Why, then, would our definition of happiness change as we age? The team of researchers at Stanford addressed this question by inviting both young and older adults to the lab. Half of these participants listened to a Buddhist meditation intervention, which emphasizes focusing on the present, while the others didn’t listen to anything. Then, all the participants rated how similar happiness was to both excitement and peacefulness. Older adults, whether they had heard the intervention or not, rated happiness as similar to the feeling of peace. Younger adults who participated in the present-focused intervention also rated happiness as more similar to peace than to excitement; this behavior contrasted with ratings by the young adults who didn’t participate in the meditative intervention: those participants reported that happiness was more like excitement than like peace, just as the blog analysis suggested. These results show that encouraging people to focus on the present moment caused them to associate happiness with peace. This suggests that the reason that older adults associate happiness with peace more than with excitement may result from an increased focus on the present as we get older.

At 23, the thought of getting old is still off-putting. My mental image of “old” includes putting in my dentures and shaking my cane angrily because “kids these days….” But we’re not always the best at predicting how we’ll feel in the future, which the research on aging and happiness reminds us (though more positive expectations about aging can predict happiness later in life). What we know so far about how well-being changes over time suggests that we should stop lamenting the prospect of our saggy, slow, and senile selves, and instead embrace the onset of our content, casino-going counterparts.

Further Reading

Image Credit: woodleywonderworks via flickr

About The Author

Rose Hendricks

Rose Hendricks is a Cognitive Science Ph.D. student at UC San Diego. Her work focuses on how metaphor shapes the way we perceive and reason about the world. Before heading west, she earned a B.A. at Vassar College, where she got hooked on thinking about thinking.