*Washington Post* 14 July 2008 includes an article: “Older Americans
May Be Happier Than Younger Ones” by Shankar Vedantam.
Here are a few excerpts:
Many times in science, research studies point in conflicting
directions. Part of the challenge — and the fun — of watching science
is to try to sort out lines of intersecting evidence hidden amid a
welter of confusing data.
In recent months, however, several studies have produced a stream of
evidence that mostly points in the same direction, and also happens to
overturn one of the most stubborn American stereotypes: the belief that
this is a land whose gifts, charms and joys flow mostly to young people.
The studies show that when you check on how happy people are at various
ages, the elderly generally come out ahead.
Since 1972, researchers have conducted 50,000 detailed interviews with
Americans. The questions of the General Social Survey are repeated year
after year to enable researchers to detect trends and to make
comparisons among groups and to see how the same people changed over
time. One asks whether they are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy.
“One important finding was people who were biologically older are
happier than younger adults,” said Tom W. Smith of the University of
Chicago, who is the director of the General Social Survey.
The study, conducted by researcher Yang Yang at the University of
Chicago, used the granular detail of the survey to eliminate the
possibility that older people seemed happier because they were raised in
a generation that was taught from an early age to be content with its
lot. Rather, Yang found, in research published in the American
Sociological Review, those older than 65 had not always been happy. It
was being older that conferred the contentment that many of them reported.
“It is counter to most people’s expectations,” said Smith, who spoke
about Yang’s paper because she was not available. “People would expect
it to be in the opposite direction — you start off by saying older
people have illnesses, deaths of spouses — they must be less happy.”
Yet another study, Smith said, looked at job satisfaction among people
of different ages and again found that those who kept working past age
65 had the highest level of job satisfaction — going against the
stereotype that older people keep working mostly because they can’t do
without the money.
“A lot of people think of people working in their 60s and 70s as trapped
in their jobs. Most of the people who continue working are people who
like their jobs,” Smith said. “Most older workers work because they
enjoy their jobs; those who did not were mostly able to retire and
pursue other things. In 1960, the old were the poorest segment in
America, and they have become less poor over the last half-century.”
The studies present an interesting puzzle, said Catherine Ross, a
sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Yang’s finding that
older adults are generally happier than younger ones seems superficially
at odds with many studies that have found that older people are at
higher risk for depression and other mental health problems.
In research published this year in the journal Social Science &
Medicine, Ross and co-author John Mirowsky, also at UT-Austin, used data
on 1,450 people who were asked in the General Social Survey how often in
the previous seven days they had felt any of a range of emotions: blue,
sad, lonely, anxious, tense, excited, embarrassed, ashamed, content or
serene. Some of the emotions were positive, and some were negative.
Simultaneously, some emotions, such as anger, were active, while others,
such as serenity, were passive.
In line with Yang’s findings, Ross and Mirowsky found that advanced age
was positively correlated with feeling positive emotions. But the
researchers also found that being older was negatively correlated with
active emotions. Older people, in other words, had both more positive
and more passive emotional states.
“A lot of research in different areas finds the elderly have higher
levels of depression, so it looked as though mental health was bad among
the elderly,” she said. “What this study does is say, ‘Yeah, it is not
that the elderly have negative emotions, but that when they are
negative, they are passive.’ ”
Older people reported more loneliness — a negative but passive emotion
— but they also reported much more serenity, a positive one.
“Young people — the very people we think from the stereotype are best
off — in fact have high levels of anger and anxiety and also high
levels of depression, compared to middle-aged adults.”
The complete article is online at: