The Department of Health and Aging says depression will be the second-leading cause of death (behind heart disease) by 2032, (Age, 2012). But happiness is the ultimate goal of most people. It is what people yearn for more than anything else. So the thought that happiness deteriorates over time is somewhat of a concern for all people, as we are all subject to the aging process. In this essay, I will discuss whether mental well-being declines with age. I will review and discuss the evidence that leads to the conclusion of whether there is a deteriorating state of well-being as one ages, or a positive effect of aging – and I will investigate the causes. Research from journal articles and major reports will be investigated to come to the conclusion. While there is a considerable amount of research from which to form a discussion on the topic, much work still needs to be done to say a definitive answer to the ultimate well-being of the aged and whether that welfare has deteriorated over time.
Happiness is often a temporary state of well-being, but overall happiness can persist. “Longitudinal findings suggest that mental well-being retains stability as people age,” (Chappel, 2007). The text from which this was quoted cited several sources that agreed mental well-being is not sacrificed in the aging process. These studies factored in tests that asked people about how they feel now compared to past years. However, the idea that happiness deteriorates as one ages persists in society. This is believed to be caused by assumptions about decreased health, income and social networks. But those who studied older people found that even the elderly believe that this is false, (Chappel, 2007). While people believed that they would be less happy in the future than what they were in the past, it was concluded that when they actually experienced that future, they were not less happy than they were in the past.
But an article in the Huffington Post takes happiness and aging one step further and says people may actually be happier when they are older. According to research from Laura Carstensen, who conducted her studies in the 1990s, happiness is perceived in a different way, depending on which age to which one belongs. She says she hasn’t heard many myths as big as the fact that older people are unhappy and lonely. “I’ve spent the last thirty years investigating the psychology of aging, and my research consistently shows that, in terms of emotion, the best years come late in life,” (Ollivier, 2012). She bases this information on the fact that older people have fewer cases of anxiety, substance abuse and depression than younger people. There are fewer negative emotions associated with older people, and they are better able to handle any that might come their way. Whereas when younger people, in their 20s and 30s, experience a negative emotion they linger for an extensive period of time. Carstensen said that scientists are shocked when they find that older people are happier.
Carstensen’s research assistant was working with her while he was in school. His name is Derek Isaacowitz and he has since become the director and professor of psychology of the Lifespan emotional Development lab at Northeastern University. In his research, he studies people’s eye movement when they were observing disturbing images. Then he rates their emotions with a mood dial. He conducts his research in the hopes of discovering why older people manage their negative emotions better than young people, while reporting that they have higher levels of happiness than their young counterparts. One might think that a person who looks at the most upsetting portion of the image is going to feel more upset than someone who looks at a portion that is less upsetting. However, the reaction varies depending on the age. One such image was of a cow being beheaded. “Older people do tend to look less overall at the most upsetting part of the stimuli we put on computers – and that does relate to the reported level of happiness for some of the subjects. Whereas for the younger subjects, generally, we find that the more they’re looking at upsetting material, the better they end up feeling,” (Ollivier, 2012). This could be interpreted as such: when young people are looking at the terrible image, they are developing a story in their heads that will allow them to understand what is happening better, and in doing so they are finding a way that is not so upsetting to them. On the other end of the spectrum, older people are limiting their exposure to the image, and to the bad feelings associated with it, by looking away. This could be an indication that as people get older, they begin to take things less as being such a big deal, as they are better able to turn the other cheek.
When thinking about this in a little more detail, and in taking examples that could be easily applied to real-life, we can analyze the behavior of a teenager to that of an adult. I think it could be treated as common knowledge the fact that many teenagers take what seem to be minor situation and they overdramatize them. For example, a breakup with a boyfriend could be treated as the most devastating event in a young girl or boy’s life, and they might say something like, “I’m never going to be happy again.” However, an adult might experience a break-up quite differently, because they might have gone through the experience many times. They know from experience that they will eventually get over the break up and move on with their lives. This is because they have done just that in the past. The devastation caused by breaking up slowly withers away and the person eventually feels better and are able to date again. For many teenagers, the emotion is new to them and they don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Applying this example to the rest of life, adults could be better at getting over the both the little things and big things that disturb them in their everyday life, such as a person who swerves in front of them through traffic. While an adult might think that this is annoying, they will have had that done to them many times and they will be better equipped to get over the negative emotion associated with being cut off.
Isaacowitz doesn’t attribute the difference in the emotional reaction to negative imagery to the “emotional wherewithal of a generation bred on shows like “Fear Factor’ and more on ‘different regulatory strategies’ between the two age groups,” (Ollivier, 2012). He admits that the reason why the reactions differ is open to debate, but he said people’s views about life change over time and these are manifested in how people “literally” view things. He says people are able to look at many different things and people who are older don’t necessarily close their eyes to the things they don’t like. People who are older do look at bad occurrences, but they just don’t pay as much attention. Young people might also be looking at the material for too long. Older people are better able to tell when something has been looked at or thought about for too long. While it could be argued that if one refuses to look at something simply because one doesn’t like it, then they could be denying themselves the ability to make that negative thing into a positive. They could suffer from an inability to fix something when they actually have the ability to do so. Ignoring something won’t make it go away in actuality, it will only go away for the person who is ignoring it. However, less exposure to something can be a healthy alternative to becoming obsessed by it. “The notion that less can be good certainly sinks in with age, when we’re more interested in shedding baggage than acquiring it,” (Ollivier, 2012). As we age, people tend to live more in the moment and have less of a concern for events that might have an impact on our social status, as they did when we were youth.
The Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation says that people tend to become more happy as they get older, but not when they are too old. The journal claims that people are happiest when they are in their retirement and they are more unhappy while in their geriatric age. According to the research, stages of happiness aren’t as cut and dry as being a steady progression, as there are various stages of happiness that are non-linear. The research debunks what is called a U-shaped pattern that forms in a person’s life. “The U-shape of happiness myth goes something like this: we were happy in our youth, became more miserable in our mid-40s, only to have happiness return in our late-50s. We then confront an inevitable happiness decline as our health fails in our late-70s and beyond,” (Age, 2012). While there has been research in the past that has supported this U-shaped theory, this theory assumed that factors that are inclusive in most people’s lives, including income, education, health and marital status remained to be consistent throughout a person’s lifetime. Instead of following a person over the years to see how their happiness fluctuated, researchers looked at a variety of groups of subjects in various states of life and they assumed, inappropriately, that they all shared common characteristics. But the new research has uncovered what the old research failed to do. The new research model took a hard look at the U-shaped happiness theory and investigated how the happiness levels changed in 60,000 people in Germany, Britain and in Australia over several years. The research included an account for limitations in statistics, which included character traits. Researchers deemed this to be important because of the random nature of the last study, which didn’t factor in characteristics of the test subjects. The researchers determined that people who are generally happier and busier in their lives during the middle-aged years would be less likely to participate in the study. However, happier and healthier older people would have more time to participate in the study. This would help lead to the upswing on the U-shape. The people who were old and too sick to respond to the survey weren’t included, and this skewed the results of the survey. There is also the idea there could be increased honesty when a person is older. For example, “Germans who were surveyed ten years in a row were significantly less happy than Germans interviewed at the beginning and end of the same period,” (Age, 2012). Researchers found that the more that a German person spoke, the more they became unhappy. This means that the person became more honest about their feelings as they continued the conversation and the façade that they put on earlier began to fade away. This evidence was also compiled among the subject in Britain, but not to a degree as significant as those who were from Germany. Australia was the lone country in the survey in which the subjects didn’t have a tendency to have less happiness as they continued to speak. The research corrected what those who were surveying called less honest reporting. They determined that Australia has the happiest people, while Britain’s people are second happiest and the Germans are the most unhappy. The chart for each followed roughly the same pattern. All groups were around a “seven” on the happy scale from age 18 through to their late 30s, but then spiked steadily to about 7.3 from their early 40s to their late sixties, at which time the happiness scale fell significantly. These findings are more in line with what has been expressed with psychological literature about the subject. Despite what the original U-scale indicated, people actually become happier as they enter the middle part of their lives.
The potential for the studies to be inaccurate is profound, but perhaps one of the most interesting questions is referenced by Adam Gorlick of the Stanford News: “are American seniors who say they’re happy simply part of an era that predisposed them to good cheer? Or do most people – whether born and raised in boom times or busts – have it within themselves to reach their golden years with a smile?,” (Gorlick, 2010). This questions come in the light of an era where there will be more people who are over 60 than those who are younger than 15. This will generate some fear among those who are aging and that concern is generally centered around the fact that there is a large number of people who are aging, but not many people are around to care for those people. This could be a reason to become depressed, but this same population has also been indicated by research to be more happy.
In her research, Laura Carstensen tracked an estimated 180 Americans aged between 18 and 94. As the research went on, some of the participants died, and others moved out of the age group in which they were being studied. The subjects carried pagers and they were required to respond to several questions when the pager buzzed. This happened one week every five years. The quizzes that they filled out were meant to chart their level of happiness, as well as the level of satisfaction they felt and how comfortable they were. The study was published online in the journal Psychology and Aging. Previous research has provided a link between growing old and being happy, but this study was the first to track people over an extensive period of time, while examining how they changed. This type of research was done in order to answer questions that were asked again and again by the social scientists who helped execute the study. The questions were to do with whether the current senior citizens are predisposed to have good cheer because of the era in which they grew up. The study, which was able to track different generations into the retirement age, found that there was no correlation with good-cheer seniors and the time in which they grew up. “Over the years, the older subjects reported having fewer negative emotions and more positive ones compared with their younger days. But even with the good outweighing the bad, older people were inclined to report a mix of positive and negative emotions more often than younger test subjects,” (Gorlick, 2010). Cartensen said that people are more aware of mortality as they get older. Because of this, they realize that life is delicate and it will end. That realizations, Carstensen said, is a sign that they are emotionally strong. She said older people often put greater emphasis on things that are important to them when time is limited. Teenagers and young adults become more frustrated, anxious and disappointed over difficulties such as test scores, finding a soul mate, career goals, and older people usually have peace with what they have done in life and all of their failures and accomplishments. As a result, they aren’t as undecided and they aren’t so stressed about the various components of life. As Gorlick points out, “So what, then, do we make of the ‘grumpy old man’ stereotype?” But Carstensen says, “Most of the grumpy old men out there are grumpy young men who grew old. Aging isn’t going to turn someone grumpy into someone who’s happy-go-lucky. But most people will gradually feel better as they grow older,” (Gorlick, 2010).
But can happiness be as black and white as the aforementioned researchers suggest? Research out of Princeton University indicates that happiness can lead to better coping abilities, lower mortality and lower morbidity, and it is particularly important because of these facts to be happier as one is older. The research says that the findings depend on the type of happiness that is being considered. Happiness is a complex emotion that isn’t as clear-cut as some researchers might like to consider. The complexity of the emotion is determined by balancing several factors: “In later life, adults may experience slightly less positive affect than younger individuals, but that is accompanied by a decline in negative emotions, especially the higher arousal emotions such as anger and fear,” (Collins, 2008). This means that because of a decline in the negative emotions, adults could be better at controlling their emotions, which is in line with what Isaacowitz was saying. However, Issacowitz emphasized that older people don’t concentrate as much as younger people on the negative imagery. This could be because of better self-control, or it could be because of a lack of obsession. According to Princeton, depression and negative affects decline with age in most people, and the happiness increases, which is consistent with the aforementioned surveys. The Princeton research also factors into happiness at an older age to whether or not the person has high cognitive capabilities, if they are physically active, social and whether they have adequate financial resources. Happiness among the older generation also depends on the intelligence level and with whether or not they are extraverted. Marital status and the size of their social network are also important. But in order to maintain or acquire happiness at an old age, one should have a “flow” in their life. “Flow is an intrinsically rewarding or optimal state that results from intense engagement with daily activities. Because the ability to be highly engaged in daily activities is characteristic of successful aging, the capacity and opportunity to experience flow may increase positive affect and life satisfaction and protect against negative affect in late adulthood,” (Collins, 2008).
It is interesting to note in my observation that the increase in happiness among the people in the retired age could be due to the fact that they are no longer working and they are not yet experiencing poor health, in most cases. It wasn’t factored in during any of the studies whether people were working. While I haven’t completed a scientific study, it should be noted that the happiest people I know are those who do not work. Whether they are retired or otherwise, those who are not working but who have the financial means by which to support themselves are far happier than those who are working, particularly if it is a job to which they have to commute as opposed to working from home as a self-employed individual. I see this as a common denominator among people who are happy. We can note that children aren’t responsible for working, and they are deemed to be generally happy. Then, when a person is retired, they are deemed to be happy once again. What happened in between? For the normal person, work happened. Happiness could be totally unrelated to the age that a person is at, and it could have everything to do with freedom. People who are free are generally happy in life. For a fully accurate survey of the occurrence of happiness on the population, there should be included in the study people who aren’t working. Researchers could be interested to know that those who had retired in their 50s, for example, were more likely to be happy than other 50-year-olds in the category.
It is interesting to note that because a larger portion of the population is older, due to the retirement of the baby boom generation, society is gradually shifting into a more happy frame of mind. The results of this isn’t yet known and is out of the scope of this essay. But if what the studies are saying is right, then there could be many benefits to a society being more happy. On the other hand, people could become more apathetic, as that is also a side effect of getting older and caring less about negative things, as the Isaacowitz research suggests. Overall, I believe there are too many variances to make a solid call on whether people are happier in retirement because of their life experiences, or if it is because they don’t have to stress about work. In order to see whether retirement is in fact the key to happiness, a scientific study that factors in the happiness of people who don’t have to work should be conducted.
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Gorlick, Adam. (2010, Oct. 27). “Stanford Study Shows getting Older Leads to Emotional
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