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Aging - The Secret to Happiness

How Aging Can Bring Happiness

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Updated August 22, 2008

aging, happiness and older adults

aging, happiness and older adults

Seth Joel / Getty Images
Happiness and aging are related, but not in the obvious way. We assume that our culture is a youth culture and that the young and the beautiful are the most happy people. That's just not true. The stereotype that young people are happy is just plain wrong. In fact, as a person ages, his or her chances at happiness only increase.

Aging and Happiness

It is probably unfathomable for young people to think that their grandma or grandpa is happier than they are, but solid research shows that Americans get happier as they age. I love the fact that as I age I can look forward to more happiness, even despite any health conditions or other problems that may arise. Before we celebrate, though, let's take a good, hard look at the evidence on aging and happiness.

Trends in Happiness Over Time

Let's face it, research in to happiness is filled with judgments and subjectivity. How do I know that someone who says, "I'm pretty happy," on a survey really is? Maybe they just learned in their life to be content with less? Maybe they don't know what real happiness is? Maybe each generation has different expectations of happiness? Researchers had to figure a way around these types of problems.

Luckily, since 1972 sociologists have been surveying over 50,000 interviews in something called the "General Social Survey." Researchers can add questions, and questions are repeated for decades. The survey is open to the public (you can analyze the data yourself online). It is the source of lots of information about our society and perfect for a study on happiness over time. By comparing differently aged individuals over time within the same year, researchers were able to get around some of these problems. What they found is that happiness increases with age.

Are You, In General, Very Happy, Pretty Happy or Not Too Happy?

That is the big question they asked year after year while collecting data about the age of the people who answered. Not only were older people happier, the researchers found that this happiness was not something they had all their life. In other words, when they got older (say 50+), happiness came to them.

Aging America - A Happy Place

So as the politicians and news media continue to warn us about the dangers of an aging America, keep this in mind: An aging America may be the happiest America we have ever seen. Perhaps this is because of the wisdom of years, perhaps older people adjust their expectations in life — but whatever the reason — there is good evidence through the study above (and others) that older Americans are truly happier then younger ones.

More on Happy Aging

To maximize your happiness as you age, try to ignore what you see in the culture about youth and happiness. Allow yourself to feel happy as you age and don't get caught up in worrying and fretting over things. Of course, take good care of your health and, most importantly, let yourself go a bit. Don't think that you have to act your age. Here are some more tips to keep you active, happy and having fun as you age:

Source: Yang, Yang. Social Inequalities in Happiness in the United States, 1972 to 2004: An Age-Period-Cohort Analysis. American Sociological Review, Volume 73, Number 2, April 2008 , pp. 204-226(23).

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