Study: Happiness May Increase with Age
> 4/17/2008 1:16:48 PM

While many teens and young adults feel unhappy and dissatisfied with their lives, new research shows that these emotions do not remain static over time. The longitudinal study, which appears in April's American Sociological Review, examined how patterns of happiness differed by age, gender, race, and other factors, demonstrating that we tend to become happier as we age.

The study, conducted by Dr. Yang Yang, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago, involved data from the General Social Survey, an ongoing investigation of social factors in America. Each year from 1972 to 2004, between 1,500 and 3,000 individuals were interviewed as part of the survey. They rated their overall levels of happiness, and Yang used their responses to chart changes in happiness over time. Women, whites, and college-educated individuals were most likely to report high levels of happiness, and age also had a clear influence. Among 18 year olds, white women were more likely to rate themselves as "very happy" (33 percent), followed by white men (28 percent), black women (18 percent), and black men (15 percent), but over time, the effects of race, sex, and education dissipated. By the time they were in their late 80s, black men and women had more than a 50 percent chance of being "very happy," and the odds for white men and women were only slightly lower.

Variations in happiness also reflected other factors, such as health and marital status. Compared to individuals who were married, those who were divorced, widowed, or single had significantly lower chances of being happy. Similarly, those who were in good health were about twice as likely to be happy as those who were not. In looking at how societal changes could influence happiness, Yang again discovered a definite relationship. Levels of happiness increased during years in which the economy had bloomed. Additionally, members of the baby boom generation (those born between 1946 and 1964) were the most unhappy of the cohorts studied, probably because the large size of their generation spurred competition for jobs and resources.

Age may reflect on happiness in many ways. Maturity often allows us to better gauge our strengths and weaknesses, while experience can help us cope more effectively with stress. And while this study's findings may seem to conflict with common views of the elderly as sad individuals struggling with illness and the deaths of loved ones, another study, also published in the current issue of American Sociological Review, illustrates that this perception is often false. While older adults do experience increasing frailty and loss, many cope with these difficulties by becoming involved in social activities. Those in their 70s and 80s are more likely to attend religious services, volunteer, and spend time socializing with their neighbors than those in their 40s and 50s. An increased connection with society could also contribute to greater happiness, and while Yang did not examine this factor explicitly, she did find that individuals who attended religious services more frequently had better odds of being happy.

While Yang's work indicates that happiness increases with age, it's important to remember that older adults are not immune from mental health problems. Depression is common among the elderly, and the older adults are also more likely to die by suicide, with white men over 85 having the highest suicide rates. Mental distress should not be a part of aging, as these studies have demonstrated, and it's important that older adults receive proper treatment for any problems they experience. Older adults can become, and often are, active and satisfied members of their society, and as time passes, they can experience greater happiness.

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