May 17, 2010 | 18
Despite weighty concerns such as aging, planning for retirement or caring for older friends and family, people in the U.S. seem to get happier with age. A new study reports that these changes are consistent regardless of whether individuals were employed, had young children at home or lived with a partner.
General well-being (characterized by how people currently felt about their life) fell sharply through the age of 25 and tapered more gradually overall until the ages of 50 to 53. And by the early 70s, that wellbeing was back up to late-teen levels.
"As people age, they are less troubled by stress and anger," the researchers noted in their study, which was led by Arthur Stone, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Stony Brook University, and published online May 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "And although worry persists, without increasing, until middle age, " they continued, "it too fades after the age of 50."
The data come from a 2008 phone survey performed by the Gallup Organization of 340,847 randomly selected adults aged 18 to 85. The respondents represented a fairly average slice of the U.S. population, with about 29 percent holding a college degree and a median monthly average household income between $3,000 and $3,999. During the call, participants were asked to rate how they currently felt their life stood on a scale of 0 ("the worst possible life for you") to 10 ("the best possible life for you"). They were then asked if they had felt different affective states (happiness, enjoyment, stress, sadness, anger and worry) "a lot of the day yesterday." Keeping questions to relatively current periods in time by asking about yesterday as opposed to the previous week, month or year helped the researchers avoid some of the retrospective bias that might have played a role in similar past studies.
Stone and his colleagues found that stress peaked in those between the ages of 22 to 25 and decreased drastically after the mid-50s. Worry stayed relatively stable in those between their 20s and 40s, then declined starting in those in their mid-50s. Anger consistently tapered off after 18, and sadness had a subtle variation, increasing in those in their 40s and falling off again in those in their mid- to late 50s (it began increasing again slightly in those in their mid-70s).
Positive feelings had less variation over the years, with happiness peaking in those who were around 20 and again in those who were in their early 70s, and enjoyment following a similar, S-shaped curve.
Although the pattern of well-being across age was similar for men and women, women reported more overall sadness, stress and worry.
Stone and his team noted that the findings fit in with proposals that "older people are more effective at regulating their emotions than younger adults" and that older adults tend to "recall fewer negative memories than younger adults." But these theories do not account for all the subtle variation and the potential role of external factors (such as career stability, family equilibrium, financial establishment and other major milestones that are often achieved by later middle age), which require more research, the researchers noted.
Previous studies have found a similar U-shaped well-being pattern in populations of dozens of countries, suggesting that the upswing after middle age might have more to do with basic human biology than buying a midlife "beemer."
Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Yuri_Arcurs