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It’s getting better all the time: Happiness, well-being increase after 50

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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happiness wellbeing increase after 50 decrease stress worry angerDespite 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





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  1. 1. hawkeye 6:18 pm 05/17/2010

    Hmmm…..Well, when one retires, suddenly one knows each night at bedtime that he or she is not compelled to arise at a painfully early hour, deal with rush hour traffic, or be subject to the whims of an employer. And job security is no longer an issue. And assuming that one is reasonably mentally healthy, and not fixated on one’s job to the exclusion of all else, and has been reasonably prudent with finances, there suddenly is the time and ability to pursue all those other interesting things one has never had time for, until now.

    And people start retiring in their fifties, most of them having done so by age seventy. I know "correlation is not causation", but it does seem to make sense. It also would confirm my complaints over the last forty-five years that having to work for a living sucks.

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  2. 2. tharriss 6:24 pm 05/17/2010

    Makes sense… Once the kids are grown up, out of school, and settled in careers/marriages, etc, parents can finally relax a bit…

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  3. 3. electriclady281 7:45 pm 05/17/2010

    ALSO, as you age and IF you’ve been paying attention, you can see that fear and hate don’t help anything or anyone’s life, but they can sure cause havoc and make whole populations easy to manipulate by unscrupulous politicians. AND one learns that the energy goes out of hateful situations as they and their protagonists are exposed as frauds. These matters will take their own time to run their courses. The most people live in integrity, the less a country will endure strife. We can have the world peace that politicians give lip service to any time that we make the choice to live in reality.

    TO YOUNG PEOPLE:
    There! Now you don’t have to wait to get old to know that! Get busy building a better world than you presently inhabit! i pray that you will bequeath a better one than the one you’ve gotten.

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  4. 4. petemicus 9:56 pm 05/17/2010

    electriclady281 – you crack me up. This world has never been more wonderful. The opportunity to succeed in the United States is unprecedented in the history of the world. The freedom enjoyed by United States citizens allows for this great nation to lead the world. Ss long as the freedom of expression permits the wide open discourse currently on maudlin display, this nation will continue.

    When processing the information relayed through the various sources always ask yourself the economic reason behind the message. Either the sources want you sell something or have you buy something. People are given the information to be healthy, the freedom to choose that health and living longer. The human specious is thriving.

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  5. 5. electriclady281 10:39 pm 05/17/2010

    IN the US there is no freedom, only political manipulation. Go peddle your opinion to the countries we have raped and destroyed only for US benefit,

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  6. 6. JLaurel 7:20 am 05/18/2010

    petemicus – YOU crack me up.

    electriclady281 – I couldn’t agree more.

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  7. 7. JLaurel 7:20 am 05/18/2010

    petemicus – YOU crack me up.

    electriclady281 – I couldn’t agree more.

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  8. 8. jtdwyer 2:05 pm 05/18/2010

    They’ve made wonderful progress in denture technology these days!

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  9. 9. ilanadm 11:02 pm 05/18/2010

    Of course, life gets better after 50 IF you’re middle class or higher, and if you live in a developed country that’s not ravaged by war, and if you’ve been mentally healthy throughout your life(e.g.,not abused as a child) .Personally, I can’t wait to join the "respectable" middle classes and retire to a fancy and intellectually stimulating place after I’ve spent a few decades doing knowledge-work from a comfortable office. Seriously! Even within the well-off middles classes, does anybody really think that students/graduates’ job stress is preferrable to the retirement age’s comforts?

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  10. 10. hawkeye 12:30 am 05/19/2010

    And your point is…………………?

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  11. 11. cutelyaware 3:40 pm 05/19/2010

    I’m glad that hawkeye reminds us that "correlation is not causation". What I wonder is whether it may be that a greater proportion of the crotchety people are dying off early and leaving behind a generally happier population of old people. In other words, if I manage to live longer, I might remain just as crotchety as ever just to find myself surrounded by a bunch of annoyingly happy peers.

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  12. 12. judykrings 8:34 pm 05/19/2010

    "Although the pattern of well-being across age was similar for men and women, women reported more overall sadness, stress and worry." Here is where Positive Psychology and Life Coaching could play a major role. Reinforcing a woman’s unique strengths. Her history of courage, nurturing others, loving, and reinforcing her letting go of guilt. Self- appreciation can be taught at any age.

    Also, to you in developing countries, I am sorry that your life has been painful and difficult. The world is getting smaller. I pray that you will have more opportunity. That loving kindness will cross your path. People are people. Governments are not people, but entities. I hope you can one day let go of anger and futility. Please give us the opportunity to see and feel our hearts open to one another. Optimism can unite the world.

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  13. 13. electriclady281 3:40 am 05/20/2010

    Yes, petemicus, "The human specious is thriving." You’re proof!

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  14. 14. ilvedebandpurple1220 4:37 am 05/20/2010

    To ilanadm…I see your point, even if hawkeye (whatever) doesn’t. Also, you need to re-evaluate your thought processes.Wake up and smell the stench of corruption.
    To electriclady281…your post is right on target, EXACTLY what I’d have said, if it were not already. This country needs to see itself from your perspective instead of putting on blinders and trying to outdo others by mere competitive nature. Just WIN,BABY! A motto not needed in this country, except in sporting events…not even then,the value of sportsmanship is lost in that. I like you and your persective. At least it is reality-based, not sugar-coated or lost in confusion.

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  15. 15. jtdwyer 5:24 am 05/20/2010

    judykrings – Truly sweet sentiments: the world is getting smaller. I really appreciate that optimism.

    However, as a battle-scarred pragmatist, I suggest that the world seems smaller because humanity’s incessant population growth has continued its consumption of available resources, now approaching their depletion.

    The world population has increased from 2.5B to nearly 7B in my lifetime, doubling in the past 40 years. Unless some humane method of reducing the population can be found, nature will forcibly reduce it, inhumanely.

    Perhaps the most humane method is the enforced limitation of childbirth implemented by China. On the other end, perhaps the most humane contribution we elders can make is voluntary termination of a now easier life, freeing our accumulated resources and ongoing requirements for the use of the young.

    What an unsatisfying end that would be, when we can alternatively choose to comfortably pass on our accumulated knowledge to our appreciative progeny as they wage war to protect our county’s production of necessary nutrients.

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  16. 16. jtdwyer 6:01 am 05/20/2010

    I must add, before anyone take action based on my suggestion, that this strategy could only be effective at reducing the world population if it were reliably, globally implemented. At this point I’m still holding out for someone with a better idea, thank you.

    Seriously, though this issue receives virtually no public attention, yet it is the most critical constraint on the future success of humanity. My real hope at this time is that the overpopulation issue can be raised to level of conscious awareness in the population of the world.

    If only a few good spirits, or native born Americans, or select group of concerned citizens of the world were to choose early retirement, any future benefit would be terminated with them. A worldwide implementation is required without any purchase buy-out options, exemptions, etc., for this to make an effective contribution. The discussion of some effective option must begin before nature implements its own corrective actions.

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  17. 17. chubbee 8:01 pm 05/20/2010

    judging by the "tenseness" of this group, I’d guess not too many of you are over fifty.
    Lighten up, you’ll live longer.

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  18. 18. hawkeye 12:47 am 05/21/2010

    I like you, chubbee; you’re absolutely right! HEY EVERYBODY!! Go back and check the title of this article! It is about a study concluding that people over fifty tend to be happier than those of lesser age – period.

    It is NOT about inequalities of wealth or opportunities between countries, class differences, whether or not this society is totally corrupt, or any of that other heavy stuff. I would hope that we all can agree that every person is an individual of worth and dignity, deserving of opportunity and social justice (and I recognize that how to achieve that goal can be problematic). But that is not the subject of the article.

    Having said that, allow me to also say that you of course have every right to discuss whatever you want in this public forum, no matter how irrelevant it may be. But you of course have no inherent right to expect a polite reaction.

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