A Harris Poll has found that nearly half (47 percent) of adults aged 65 and older consider themselves to be “very happy,” compared with less than a third (29 percent) of those between the ages 18 and 24. In fact, a two other studies have focused on older people, their happiness, and their levels of social connectedness. Given all the evidence, Matures may well be the happiest demographic in America.
Researchers from the University of Chicago just announced that we grow happier as we grow older, and even racial gaps (blacks tend to be less happy than whites) begin to diminish with age.
The least happy generation, according to the study, which was led by Yang Yang, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, were Baby Boomers, defined as individuals born between 1945 and 1964.
“This is probably due to the fact that the generation as a group was so large, and their expectations were so great, that not everyone in the group could get what he or she wanted as they aged due to competition for opportunities. This could lead to disappointment that could undermine happiness,” Yang said in a public statement.
The results of the study are consistent with the “age as maturity hypothesis,” Yang said publicly, meaning that as we age we acquire positive psychosocial traits such as self-integration and self-esteem, making us happier overall. Furthermore, group differences in happiness begin to vanish as the playing field evens out; access to health care and deaths of loved ones equalize the experiences of the elderly across gender and racial groups.
Yet another University of Chicago (UC) study examining social networks among the elderly found that, despite social stereotypes depicting older individuals as isolated and lonely, they actually connect with others more than their Boomer counterparts.
While it is true that as one ages, one’s social circle shrinks, due to retirement and loss of loved ones to death, the elderly are also very involved in a range of social networks, from attending religious services and functions to community volunteer work.
In fact, the study found that people in their 80s were twice as likely to socialize with neighbors, engage in religious activities, volunteer in the community, and attend weekly meetings of other organized groups. Overall, three-quarters of adults between the ages of 57 and 85 engage in these activities.
Only 40 percent of people in their 50s and 60s socialize regularly with neighbors, compared with half of people in their 70s and 80s. People in their early 80s were twice as likely to socialize with neighbors as were those in their late 50s.
The UC study found that people in their 70s and 80s are more likely to attend weekly religious services. Half of people in that age group do so, compared with 40 percent of those in their 50s and 60s. People in their 70s are twice as likely to attend services as those in their late 50s, and people in their 80s are nearly 50 percent more likely to do so.
Volunteering, another activity which previous studies have linked to increased levels of happiness, is also more prevalent among the elderly. Nearly a quarter (22 percent) of those in their 70s and 80s volunteer weekly, compared with less than a fifth (17 percent) of those in their late 50s. Those in their 70s and 80s are 36 percent more likely to volunteer weekly than those in their 50s.
“The new image of the older American is this: Far from being helpless isolates, they are actually extraordinary adaptive creatures. Not only are older adults exceptionally adaptive to social loss, but we speculate that they may also be more proactive than younger adults in establishing ties to the community. In short, they appear to be more socially engaged,” said researcher Benjamin Cornwell in a public statement.
Stress management expert Debbie Mandel, author of Turn On Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind and Soul, contends that a combination of factors account for happier older people. “Older people are happier if they are in good health because they see from a higher vista and appreciate what they have, have settled their identity issues and trimmed down unrealistic expectations, [and they] feel the fragility and fleeting aspects of life and so are happy to be above ground,” she says.
Psychiatrist Ken Jones, MD, maintains that happiness and age lies with differing priorities and values. “I think the young people age 18 to 24 have ill-defined goals. Eighty percent of these people have a goal to ‘be rich’ without knowing what to do to get rich,” Jones states. “They are confused, don’t like their parents (they began to love their parents again around age 23), dislike authority, and spend a lot of time in short term, unsatisfying relationships.”
Jones also contends that lifestyle habits and attitudes play a part in who lives to be the happiest. “The older people are also the people who did the things to increase longevity,” he notes. “They made a lot of friends, took care of their health, smiled a lot, ate the right food, and did not engage in risky or death causing behavior.”
“For instance, the average cocaine user quits, burns out his brain, or dies before the age of 40. This does not increase longevity,” Jones adds. “Many of these older people attend church [or other houses of worship] once or twice a week and have a strong sense of community. They also give to the community in service.”
It is important to consider the power of personal perspective when examining how to maximize one’s happiness. Individual differences matter, says psychologist Patricia M. Berliner, Ph.D. “I think that individual people have individual feelings that vary based on personality and circumstances, attitude and life-realities,” Berliner explains. “I can feel unwanted and unneeded and unappreciated at 10 or 16 or 30 or 100, or, equally, I can feel fulfilled, happy, [and] worthwhile at any age. I believe it has to do both with attitude and opportunities, whether presented to us or created by us.”
Much of what determines happiness is based on how well we deal with life events and other people, Berliner adds. “I am not sure that any of us really knows what life has to offer or what to expect of other people, although some of us are better at ‘people reading’ than others, some are better at rolling with the punches, some need to be given invitations by life, others are the invitation givers,” Berliner states.
While people of any age can possess such traits, “If we’re lucky, the older among us have learned more about life and have ‘more tricks up their sleeves’ than the younger,” Berliner notes.
Factors that affect happiness at any age, Berliner notes, include “physical well being (not necessarily great health, but enough health of body, mind and spirit to keep us going), ability to get around (walk, drive, get into a bus), creativity, attitude, expectations ([having a] realistic framework and analysis of options versus pipe dreams), involvement in making life happen rather than wishing for it, or watching it pass by, or waiting for someone or something pop out of the sky.”
Finally, Berliner concludes, “All of us are faced with dealing with, transforming or giving into stress. There is distress, which debilitates and eustress, which energizes.”