Getting old is a drag. Your health starts failing, your body doesn’t work like it used to, and the friends and family you’ve known your whole life start dying off one by one. That’s why old people are so unhappy all the time… except that they’re not.
Contrary to what was long assumed, studies show that despite the undeniable adversities that come with aging, older people are actually happier than younger people. So what does the evidence say about happiness across the lifespan?
In a study of 2 million people in 80 countries, researchers found that well-being across the lifespan follows a U-shaped curve—happiness is high in young people, decreases through middle age or “midlife,” and rises again after age 60. Interestingly, this U-shaped curve appears in almost every country studied so far.
One survey found that it is actually people in their 20s and 30s who report the highest rates of anxiety, depression, and stress and the lowest levels of well-being. Young people are more likely to compare themselves to others, researchers suggest, whereas older adults have more experience brushing off stressors.
Having children also makes people less happy, at least during the years spent childrearing. In the year after you have your first baby, in fact, happiness drops more than it does after divorce, unemployment, or even the death of a partner.
Some studies have found that well-being reaches a nadir during midlife—hence the proverbial “midlife crisis.” Midlife seems to be a time when people reevaluate their lives, feeling frustrated with what they have and haven’t achieved and unhappy about the inevitability of aging.
But as they come to grips with reality and adjust their expectations—a process called accommodation—a sense of well-being returns. Studies find that compared to young people, older people experience a smaller discrepancy between their life goals and their accomplishments. Among older people, ratings of the ideal self and the actual self tend to be similar.
The most significant factor behind the surge in happiness later in life may be that older people are simply better able to regulate their emotions. One study, by Laura Carstensen and colleagues, found that as people grow older, they become more emotionally stable, more emotionally balanced, and better able to solve highly emotional problems. Whereas young people see the future as open, older people see it as bounded. This inspires them to organize their lives so as to maximize good feelings and minimize negative ones, research has found.
“When people face endings they tend to shift from goals about exploration and expanding horizons to ones about savoring relationships and focusing on meaningful activities,” explains Carstensen. “When you focus on emotionally meaningful goals, life gets better, you feel better, and the negative emotions become less frequent and more fleeting when they occur”.
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