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.’
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