Exciting new research has found that the happiest Americans are actually the oldest. Older adults are actually more socially active than the stereotype of the lonely senior suggests. It is a well-known fact in mental health circles that being sociable may help to keep away the blues and lead to a longer, happier life..
The author of this happiness research is Yang Yang, a University of Chicago sociologist who states “The good news is that with age comes happiness.” He also went on to say that: “Life gets better in one’s perception as one ages.” Although old-age brings a certain amount of aches and pains and the death of loved ones and friends, older people have a tendency to be more content with what they have than younger individuals, according to Yang.
Duke University aging expert Linda George concluded that older people have learned to lower their expectations and accept their achievements. An older person may conclude that “It’s fine that I was a schoolteacher and not a Nobel prize winner.” Although Ms. George was not involved in the research, she pointed out that the research is important because people tend to think that “late life is far from the best stage of life, and they don’t look forward to it.”
Yang’s research was based upon periodic face-to-face interviews with a nationally representative sample of Americans from 1972 to 2004, with about 28,000 people, ages 18 to 88 having taken part. There were various levels of overall happiness measured during the study, frequently corresponding with whether economic times were either good or bad. However, at every stage older Americans were the happiest.
The study also found that poor people and younger blacks tended to be less happy than whites and wealthier individuals. However, these differences seemed to fade as individuals aged. The odds of being happy increased by 5% with every 10 years of age. By the age of 88, 33% of Americans reported being very happy while only 24% of those age 18 to their early 20’s also reported the same level of happiness. Throughout the years of the study, most Americans reported being very happy or pretty happy, while less than 20% said they were not too happy.
A separate study from the University of Chicago found that about 75% of individuals in the 57 to 85 age group engaged in one or more social activities per week, including volunteering or going to group meetings, socializing with neighbors, or attending religious services. Individuals in their 80’s were twice as likely as those in their 50’s to do at least one of these activities per week.
Both of these studies appeared in April’s edition of American Sociological Review. Benjamin Cornwell, also a University Chicago researcher, and co-author of the study stated that “People’s social circles do tend to shrink a little as they age-that is mainly where that stereotype comes from, but that image of the isolated elderly really falls apart when we broaden our definition of what social connection is.”
The validity of this research also seems to ring true for 81-year-old George O’Hare, from Willowbrook, Illinois, who is a retired Sears manager. He is currently active in AARP and church, as well as doing motivational speaking. His wife is still living and he’s very close to his children and grandchildren. O’Hara stated “I’m very happy because I’ve made friends that are still living. He went on to say “I like to go out and speak in schools about motivation.” He also commented “Happiness is getting out and being with people, and that’s why I recommend it.”
This all seems to be good news for the aging generation. It is interesting however that Yang’s study also found that baby boomers were the least happy of all the groups. “They could end up living the unfortunate old-age stereotype that they can’t let go of their achievement-driven mind-set” said Ms. George, the Duke aging expert. She said “So far, baby boomers aren’t lowering their aspirations at the same rate earlier generations did”. “They still seem to believe they should have it all,” George said. “They’re still thinking about having a retirement that’s going to let them do everything they haven’t done yet.”
Previous studies have shown midlife to be the most stressful time according to Cornwell University sociologist Elaine Wethington. “Everyone’s asking you to do things and you have a lot to do. You’re less happy because you feel hassled.” She went on to state that the new studies show “If you can make it through that there’s light at the end of the tunnel”.
Article adapted from AP article The oldest Americans are also the happiest, research finds by Lindsey Tanner Friday April 18, 2008.
Additional Information and webpage by Paul Susic Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist