Older people ‘are happier than people in their 20s and 30s’

Old people are happier than young adults, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

The research, by the University of California in San Diego, suggests that older people have the lowest levels of anxiety, depression and stress, and the highest levels of happiness and satisfaction.

The study challenges the prevailing wisdom about happiness as we age. Large-scale studies have found that, in developed countries, happiness through life is U-shaped: higher levels in our youth, a dip in middle age (46 is the nadir) and then rising from our late 50s.

In the latest study, however, people in their 20s and 30s reported having the highest levels of depression, anxiety and stress. Correspondingly their levels of happiness were low.

The data was gathered from phone interviews with a random sample of 1,500 people between the ages of 21 and 99, during which the subjects were asked about their physical and mental health.

The study’s lead author, Dr Dilip Jeste, told Time magazine that the results can partly be explained by the difficulties faced by young adults. ‘There is constant peer pressure: you’re looking at others and always feeling bad that you’re not succeeding like some of them, and you feel like you have lots of choices but you’re not really making use of them.

’As they got older, it looks like things started getting better for them. It suggests that with age, there’s a progressive improvement in mental health.’

Instant analysis
It is always interesting to look at how people’s perceptions of life change as they get older and develop life experience and wisdom. Unfortunately, this study doesn’t really tell us specifically about that. It also cannot explain the trend that it has shown.

Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology at Stanford University, suggests that because older people know they are closer to the end of their lives, they grow better at focussing on things that matter in the present, such as their feelings, what they enjoy etc, rather than long-term goals. For example, she says: ‘Young people will go to cocktail parties because they might meet somebody who will be useful to them in the future, even though nobody I know actually likes going to cocktail parties.’

There are, of course, other theories too, such as the acceptance of goals one hasn’t achieved, rather than the relentless pursuit of them.

In the case of this study, it would be interesting (yet logistically pretty difficult!) to carry out the same surveys on the people in the younger group in 50 years’ time to see how their answers change.
Research score: 2/5

  • hobspawn

    “Here’s why.” Here’s how. Here’s what. Here’s a thing. Here’s another irritating sub-literate Americanism in a Spectator headline. Here’s a punch in the face.

    (Note: the link on the Spectator home page contained the postscript “Here’s why” even though this page does not)

  • davidofkent

    I sometimes wonder why these sort of studies into our psychological wellbeing are always wrong. Some older people are happier than some young people in their 20s to 30s. Some older people are not. With age comes ill-health, although this is being delayed thanks to medical science. Some older people have very low incomes and worry about heating their homes. Some of us oldies look at the state of the country and find it sad and bewildering. It is sad because people have changed so much, and not necessarily for the better. It is bewildering because we cannot understand what makes the younger generations tick. Some of us wonder why our grandfathers and fathers fought in two world wars to save Europe and Britain from German, Ottoman and Japanese aggression just to hand the country over to people we do not like and cannot trust. So, stuff these silly studies where they belong – in the bin.

    • Callipygian

      No: With bad habits indulged over time and a lack of concern for fitness comes ill health. I intend to be healthy well into my advanced years. Youth is a period but health is for a long time, if you know what you’re doing and are committed to doing it.

  • Ingmar Blessing

    My theory would be that older people simply already tried all the wrong answers. When you’re 30 you had about 15 years of experience in what to do wrong and how to make yourself miserable, when you’re 50 you have 35 years of experience. On top of that there’s usually also a certain financial cushion since most long-living gadgets already have been bought and that one expensive trip to something tropical/Switzerland/expensive short trip has already been done.

    So, there’s more left to fill the gaps with things that A) aren’t so expensive or B) are at least not unfunny, or C) even make fun. As a result the personal happiness increases.

    • Callipygian

      Mm. I have a much more expansive explanation for increasing happiness than that. I think it has to do with knowledge, and the fact that being human is very hard, and that it gets easier the more you know how.

  • Knowledge like this is very empowering. I personally am much happier now that I’m older. I was very depressed in high school. Having adults tell me “Be happy. These are the best times of your life.” was NOT helpful. If someone had told me life gets better it might have removed some of the pressure.

    • davidofkent

      Yes, but this article is not offering knowledge. It is merely offering you somebody else’s information which is quite probably wrong. At best, it is useless.

  • Donafugata

    That will be because they have all the money, all the property, a free university education, free bus passes, free heating and tele, blah, blah, blah.

    Not true, as most of us know but this will stoke the fire of the youth’s illusion of “generational theft” and is highly irresponsible.

  • Fraser Bailey

    Happiness is surely unimaginable at any age beyond about two years old, given the state of the world with all its injustice and conflict etc, not to mention the very existence of Blair, Cameron, Brown, Osborne, Erdogan, Hollande and all the rest of them. But one can only keep buggering on. I hosted a sculpture exhibition in my garden the other night, attended only by wonderful people – not a single politician, corporate drone or money grabbing public sector moaner among them. Just proactive, creative, intelligent people who do stuff. I suppose brief oases of happiness are possible.

    • Callipygian

      Don’t be down on all of those people: there are good ones among them, too.

  • cosmo smalls

    I’m much happier in my 40s than I was in 20s or 30s although I wish that time was stretching out in front of me in the same way. I am not burdened with the pressure of ‘making something of my life’. Life has taught me that the true measure of success is being able to enjoy your life irrespective of what society says you should achieve. Apart from that there is some pleasure to be gained from having paid off half your mortgage, have no student fees to pay and being more sure about what you like and dislike which often translates into not having to take other people’s cr*p! The cliche of ‘life is a journey not a destination’ is pretty true. None of us are really going anywhere – well we are all going to die this is sure. I think the older you get, in theory, the more you appreciate what you have and how you want to spend the time you have left. Worrying is the root of much malaise, as you age it seems increasingly pointless to do so. I have also found that I am pretty much ignored by people in their 20s and early 30s, which puts you in a band of people who should righteously give less of a f*ck about what people think about them! I can’t imagine having to go through the futility of impressing people like younger people feel they have to.

    • Callipygian

      Agree: I’m in my 40s, and though there have been rough periods throughout all my decades (thanks Mum & Dad!), I’m more secure in my well-being now than ever. It could all blow up tomorrow — but that is always the case. I like me, I like where I’ve arrived, and I like the striving that motivates but doesn’t exhaust me. Life is good. I expect that to continue with knobs on, right through my 50s and 60s.

  • Elsdon Ward

    These are perceptions. Each of us is unique and our approaches to life and what we get out of it – are different. Between these differences there exists truths. When and if these truths are realised discovered and grasped – then they can have an immediate bearing upon happiness. The confidence and satisfaction of youth can never be regained – but might grow into a stable and happy middle age – and a contented old age. We should never listen to rubbish that states that specific types are happier than other types. This will never be proven because it just is not true. We each reach for immortality – for satisfaction and for happiness in our own ways. We must pass on our wisdom and our happiness to our children to help save them time in their own journeys