If You’re Happy and You Know It, You Must Be Over 50

Happiness is an often-sought quality in life, though its attainment can be difficult. Stress, worry, sadness, anger, and enjoyment are subjective measures of well-being that are defined by individual personality traits, as well as cultural variables and particular life experiences. However, new research suggests that one key to happiness may be easier to define: age. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports that happiness is more consistent after age 50.

The researchers surveyed more than 340,000 Americans about subjective well-being, quality of life, and basic demographic factors. People in their mid- to late-50’s were reportedly happier and experienced less stress and worry than adults in their 20’s, regardless of marital status, level of employment, or number of children living at home. The study examined both overall happiness (global well-being) and day-to-day emotions (hedonic well-being). Global well-being is a more holistic, reflective view of life, while hedonic well-being is a more immediate view.

The results of this study confirm earlier research that found that measures of well-being vary with age. Stress and anger decreased steadily from young adulthood through old age. Worry was fairly constant until age 50, but then declined. Sadness increased in the early 40’s and then declined in the mid-50’s. Overall satisfaction with life revealed a U-shaped curve, decreasing from early adulthood until age 50, and then increasing steadily through old-age. Overall, men and women showed the same patterns of well-being related to age, though women tended to have more stress, worry, and sadness throughout their lives.

Many factors influence well-being and quality of life, especially as people age. Family relationships provide much-needed support and contact, but can also cause stress due to a close relative’s death or severe disease. Cultural beliefs as to what constitutes happiness, such as income, occupation, marital status, or other demographic variables, also influence subjective well-being. (For example, in recent decades, American males have become progressively less content with their lives owing to occupational, financial, and social pressures and expectations.) Religious beliefs and a belief in a just world are also related to happiness in older populations.

The U-shaped happiness curve seen in this study has been reported previously. A larger sample of 500,000 subjects from America and Western Europe showed that happiness reached its minimum in middle-age, and then progressively increased throughout the remainder of life for both men and women on both sides of the pond. There is also evidence of a U-shaped curve of happiness in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia, indicating that cultural variables may not vary as widely as once believed. Developing nations are generally exempted from these findings.

Why does happiness accompany the wisdom that comes with age? No one knows. In general, older people are better at controlling their emotions than younger people, which could mitigate feelings of anger or stress. Or, the nostalgia of remembering positive memories as opposed to negative ones might make people more content. Older people may not focus on what they have not achieved, but on how to enjoy the time that is remaining. Or, they find happiness when they have finished raising their kids and have established careers. Healthy ageing and well-being are multidimensional, and there may never be one true definition of happiness or how to achieve it. But, people the world over would be wise to heed the recommendations of Roman poet Ausonius:

Let us never know what old age is. Let us know the happiness time brings, not count the years.


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Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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