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Old people trump younger ones on happiness scale

The elderly have fewer financial, interpersonal and crime problems, giving them contentment, researchers find.

September 21, 2008|Shankar Vedantam | Washington Post

Many times in science, research studies point in conflicting directions. Part of the challenge -- and the fun -- of watching science is to try to sort out lines of intersecting evidence hidden amid a welter of confusing data.

In recent months, however, several studies have produced a stream of evidence that mostly points in the same direction and overturns one of the most stubborn American stereotypes: the belief that this is a land whose gifts, charms and joys flow mostly to young people.

The studies show that when you check on how happy people are at various ages, the elderly generally come out ahead.

Since 1972, researchers have conducted 50,000 detailed interviews with Americans. The questions of the General Social Survey are repeated year after year to enable researchers to detect trends and to make comparisons among groups and to see how the same people changed over time. One asks whether they are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy.

"One important finding was people who were biologically older are happier than younger adults," said Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago, who is the director of the General Social Survey.

The study, conducted by researcher Yang Yang at the University of Chicago, used the granular detail of the survey to eliminate the possibility that older people seemed happier because their generation was taught from an early age to be content with its lot. Rather, Yang found, in research published in the American Sociological Review, those older than 65 had not always been happy. It was being older that conferred the contentment that many of them reported.

"It is counter to most people's expectations," said Smith, who spoke about Yang's paper because she was not available. "People would expect it to be in the opposite direction -- you start off by saying older people have illnesses, deaths of spouses -- they must be less happy."

Smith said he and other colleagues also had examined the phenomenon from a different perspective, by asking people about their problems -- including physical ailments, problems with relationships, losing a beloved family member and becoming the victim of a crime. Smith found that older people reported a larger number of health problems but tended to report far fewer difficulties overall -- fewer financial, interpersonal and crime problems.

The younger adults, Smith said, had less trouble with their health but had many more of the other kinds of predicaments, and those, in the long run, tended to trump their better health.

Yet another study, Smith said, looked at job satisfaction among people of different ages and again found that those who kept working past age 65 had the highest level of job satisfaction.

"A lot of people think of people working in their 60s and 70s as trapped in their jobs. Most of the people who continue working are people who like their jobs," Smith said. "Most older workers work because they enjoy their jobs; those who did not were mostly able to retire and pursue other things. In 1960, the old were the poorest segment in America, and they have become less poor over the last half century."

The studies present an interesting puzzle, said Catherine Ross, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Yang's finding that older adults are generally happier than younger ones seems superficially at odds with many studies that have found that older people are at higher risk for depression and other mental health problems.

In research published this year in the journal Social Science & Medicine, Ross and co-author John Mirowsky used data on 1,450 people who were asked in the General Social Survey how often in the previous seven days they had felt any of a range of emotions: blue, sad, lonely, anxious, tense, excited, embarrassed, ashamed, content or serene. Some of the emotions were positive, and some were negative. Simultaneously, some emotions, such as anger, were active, and others, such as serenity, were passive.

In line with Yang's findings, Ross and Mirowsky found that advanced age was positively correlated with feeling positive emotions. But the researchers also found that being older was negatively correlated with active emotions. Older people, in other words, had both more positive and more passive emotional states.

"A lot of research in different areas finds the elderly have higher levels of depression, so it looked as though mental health was bad among the elderly," she said. "What this study does is say, 'Yeah, it is not that the elderly have negative emotions, but that when they are negative, they are passive.' "

Older people reported more loneliness -- a negative but passive emotion -- but they also reported much more serenity, a positive one.

"The reason we think the elderly have higher levels of depression is not because they have higher levels of negative emotions but that they have higher levels of passivity," Ross said. "If the problem is having lower levels of energy, maybe the answers lie in increasing levels of energy, like reading a book or taking a walk -- mental and physical activity -- taking a bike ride or a yoga class. The sadness part may not be a negative emotion but a manifestation of the energy level.

"Young people -- the very people we think from the stereotype are best off -- in fact have high levels of anger and anxiety and also high levels of depression, compared to middle-aged adults," she said.

"The image of youth or young adulthood as the best time of life is probably not an accurate stereotype."

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