Like most baby boomers, I had always embraced the “Forever Young” mantra of Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart, which suggests that life’s best blessings are reserved for the youthful. Now that I’m officially a senior citizen, I find it reassuring to learn that — against all odds — being older seems to really mean being happier.
Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford Center of Longevity, discovered with her colleagues that there really is a U-shaped curve to our sense of well-being.
In her words: “Forties were, for me, the worst. You’re never good enough professionally. I think you’re coming out of the fog in the 50s. … the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.”
And when David Blanchflower of Dartmouth University and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick began to measure the relationship between work and happiness, the results of international surveys that focused on “life satisfaction” surprised them.
For the first couple of decades of adulthood, the numbers declined until they bottomed out in the 40s or early 50s. They would then increase with age and often reach a higher level than in young adulthood.
On average, the lowest point — in 55 of the 80 countries surveyed — was 46 years of age. Carol Graham and Milena Nikolova studied polls from 149 countries that asked people to rate their lives on a scale from zero to 10, where 10 represented the “best possible life for you” and zero the worst. In all but nine of the countries where they found a relationship between age and happiness, the average lowest level of satisfaction was about age 50.
As a quirky aside, primatologists gathered information from zookeepers, researchers and other animal caretakers to rate the well-being of more than 500 captive orangutans and chimps in the United States, Australia, Canada, Japan and Singapore. Believe it or not, the apes’ well-being bottomed out at ages that would be comparable in humans between 45 and 50 years old.
Researchers have come to some distinct age-related happiness conclusions:
»Younger people consistently overestimated how happy they would be in five years.
» Older people underestimated their future sense of satisfaction.
» During middle age, both life satisfaction and expectations are in decline.
» For this reason, middle-aged people tend to be disappointed and pessimistic.
» Eventually, the expectations stop declining and come to rest at a lower level than in youth; surprises become positive; and life satisfaction moves upward. This usually happens around age 50.
» When the future becomes closer and more constrained, we focus on the present, which helps older people live in the moment and savor the now.
» In spite (or because) of physical decline, older people acquire wisdom, which can act as a springboard to contentment and happiness.
» Older individuals are less likely to feel unhappy about things they can’t change, which means they live with less regret than younger people.
» Compared with younger people’s brains, older people’s react less strongly to negative stimuli, which means that younger people tend to wind up with more negative feelings.
» The older we get, the easier it becomes for our aging brains to be more grateful, more calm, more satisfied and wiser.
— Marilyn Murray Willison is a columnist, motivational speaker and journalist, and author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes. Click here to contact her, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.