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Happiness increases with age, across generations reports new research

Happiness increases with age, across generations reports new research.
Anne Hart, Photography, illustration, and novel.

Your overall level of well-being depends on when you were born, according to a new study. A new report published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reveals that self-reported feelings of well-being tend to increase with age, but that a person’s overall level of well-being depends on when he or she was born. Psychological scientist Angelina R. Sutin of Florida State University College of Medicine conducted the study while at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), where she remains a guest researcher.

Happiness increases with age, which is what depressed, hormonal, and angry teenagers may not yet understand or have patience to contemplate in searching for immediate gratification. But when shown why happiness increases as you age, the young often wonder why this happens so often just when time becomes more precious as it runs out. For the aged, days seem to fly by faster than they did when you were young.

The oldest Facebook member is 105. Retirees age 65 and older are the fastest-growing group of social networkers on sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace, according to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. The report found that 40 percent of Internet users older than 65 use Facebook, up 150 percent since 2009. Check out the ABC news site, "Facebook's Oldest User Is 105 - ABC News."

Golden-agers are also signing onto Twitter in record numbers. In 2009, only 5 percent of Internet users in the 50 to 64 age bracket had used Twitter, or some other status-update service. It's now up to 11 percent. But there is not yet a major study of people on Twitter over age 70.

Happiness increases as you age reports new study

The study of happiness increasing as you age is the subject of a new study from the Association for Psychological Science, NIH/National Institute on Aging, and the National Institutes of Health published online ahead of the print edition on January 24, 2013, in the journal Psychological Science. The title of the original article in Psychological Science is "The Effect of Birth Cohort on Well-Being: The Legacy of Economic Hard Times." Check out the article's abstract online.

For some, having to pay fewer bills after retirement when only one or two people live in a residence and the mortgage is paid off, could be one of the reasons why happiness increases as you age. But is this across the board for both well-off financially seniors as well as seniors living in extreme poverty and isolation as families don't visit and the older adult has outlived any savings?

Psychological well-being has been linked to many important life outcomes, including career success, relationship satisfaction, and even health. But it's not clear how feelings of well-being change as we age, as different studies have provided evidence for various trends over time. A new report published in Psychological Science reveals that self-reported feelings of well-being tend to increase with age, but that a person's overall level of well-being depends on when the individual was born. Why does life satisfaction increase with age? Expenses and health needs also change with age, especially after retirement.

Did you go through the same unique experience as many others in the same time period and were shaped by the way you evaluate happiness and optimism?

She and colleagues at NIA predicted that people in the same “birth cohort” — born around the same time — may have had unique experiences that shape the way they evaluate happiness and optimism. They hypothesized that the level of well-being a person reports would, therefore, vary according to his or her birth year. Using two large-scale longitudinal studies, NIH’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) and the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), Sutin and colleagues looked at data from several thousand people over 30 years, including over 10,000 reports on well-being, health, and other factors.

When Sutin and her colleagues analyzed the same data while taking birth cohort into account, a different trend appeared: Life satisfaction increased over the participants’ lifetimes. This trend remained even after factors like health, medication, sex, ethnicity, and education were taken into account. An example might be growing up in the 1950s or being born just before WWII began as compared when track houses and cars were becoming popular and people with eight-grade only educations could buy a home or find a job and support a non-working spouse and two children.

Compare those times to being born just before the 1929 economic depression or being drafted in the military during WWII, for those born around 1920-1924 who served in 1940 and are now reaching the limits of their lifespan, when someone grew up watching long soup lines and extreme poverty. Then compare that to graduating from college in 2008 and not being able to find a job that pays more than minimum wage and doesn't really make use of your education, or having to pay back hefty college loans.

Compare that to the ease of finding a teaching job just after WWII when college tuition was relatively cheap or free if your grades were good enough or the GI Bill paid for your college degree and teaching credential if you returned from the military after the Korean War in the early 1950s and are now in your eighties, retired, and own your own home that you bought for $10,000 in the early fifties, with a now paid-off mortgage.

When the researchers analyzed the data across the whole pool of participants, older adults had lower levels of well-being than younger and middle-aged adults

So what explains the different results? While life satisfaction increased with age for each cohort, older birth cohorts — especially people born between 1885 and 1925 — started off with lower levels of well-being in comparison to people born more recently. Looking at life satisfaction across all of the participants, regardless of when they were born, obscures the fact that each cohort actually shows the same underlying trend.

Sutin and colleagues point out that the level of well-being of cohorts born in the early part of the 20th century, particularly those who lived through the Great Depression, was substantially lower than the level of well-being of cohorts who grew up during more prosperous times. The greater well-being of more recent cohorts could be the result of economic prosperity, increased educational opportunities, and the expansion of social and public programs over the latter half of the 20th century.

According to the researchers, these findings may have important implications for today’s younger generations. “As young adults today enter a stagnant workforce, the challenges of high unemployment may have implications for their well-being that long outlast the period of joblessness. Economic turmoil may impede psychological, as well as financial, growth even decades after times get better,” Sutin explained in the February 6, 2013 news release, "Happiness increases with age, across generations."

Co-authors on this research include Antonio Terracciano also of Florida State University College of Medicine and a guest researcher at the NIA; Yuri Milaneschi of the National Institute on Aging and VU University Medical Center; and Yang An, Luigi Ferrucci and Alan B. Zonderman of the National Institute on Aging, NIH. This research was supported in part by the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging, National Institutes of Health. The APS journal Psychological Science is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology.


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