Insights June 2010

Happiness Rising

Neil Seeman

In an eye-popping study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Arthur Stone and colleagues interviewed over 340,000 people in the United States by telephone to ask about how happy they were. The survey asked each person to rank overall life satisfaction on a 10-point scale and to answer six yes-or-no questions about enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, anger, and sadness.

What the researchers found surprised them. Levels of stress and anger decline progressively and significantly after people pass through their early 20s. This is not a story about the feeling of emancipation that comes with graduating from college or paying for your own cell phone plan. We humans shed stress and anger bit by bit as we age.

Over 50 and Smiling

When it comes to the feeling of worry, it follows a slightly different trajectory. Worry rises after age 18, but then falls again after 50. Perhaps by that time all your anxious worries have already materialized – the career that never reached the heights you once imagined; the marriage that fizzled; the house that foreclosed; the friends who betrayed you; the children who turned out less than perfect. After age 50, there is nothing further to worry about and so one becomes increasingly happy. Or at least that’s one explanation.

If true, this is of great significance for managers in recessionary times. Many over 50 have been thrust into long-term unemployment. Yet thanks to this new study, we now have powerful data to fight age discrimination in the workplace. Older workers are happy workers, and happy workers are more sensitive to client needs. Leaders, take note.

The study followed a careful methodology. All the various feelings were measured using tools called ‘Hedonic WB’ and ‘Global WB’. WB stands for well-being. This reflects one’s own subjective view of the experience of well-being. External realities don’t matter. You could be living in squalor (as long as you have a phone and can be reached in order to be surveyed) and you still apparently feel more and more content as you age. Amazing this, when you consider that by age 85 (the happiness apex apparently) one’s physical health is generally not top notch.
Why would people be happier when they get older? Is it because they have accumulated material goods over their life span? Do riches make people happier?  Apparently not. Being a man or a woman didn’t make a difference, being single or partnered didn’t make a difference, being employed or not didn’t matter and neither did having children at home. In other words, outside circumstances didn’t affect the outcome as far as the researchers could tell. Contentment is a state of mind.
Maybe world views change with maturity. You get wise and realize, by the time you reach your eighties, that possessions and earthly glory don’t count. It’s the emotional-spiritual dimension that really matters.
But there may be another explanation still. Perhaps the progressive elimination of crucial nerve cells in the brain has obliterated bad memories so there’s nothing remembered worth worrying about? Nerve cells die at random, I was taught. But maybe that’s not true. Maybe the nerve networks that record good times stay intact longer than those others that hold awkward, humiliating, depressing moments that you have ruminated over so often that the circuits are worn from overuse, burnt out, and the bad memories have melted away forever.
Whatever the reason behind the study’s results, the news is good for older people (and something to look forward to even if you’re young). By the time you hit 85, you’ll be more satisfied with yourself than you ever were. Bob Dylan was right. You’ll be so much younger then, you’re older than that now.

About the Author(s)

Neil Seeman is a writer, and Director and Primary Investigator of the Health Strategy Innovation Cell at Massey College at the University of Toronto.


John Joseph wrote:

Posted 2010/08/06 at 08:08 AM EDT

Another reason could be that as we get older we just give up on trying to change situations or people. Maybe as we grow older we accept situations and people as they are.


Darlene Schindel wrote:

Posted 2010/08/06 at 01:10 PM EDT

A positive sign that knowledge transfer and translation is occurring!


Neil Seeman wrote:

Posted 2010/08/06 at 04:09 PM EDT

Excellent points. Elliot Jacques (a Canadian!) coined the term "mid-life crisis" 40 years ago. If I'm not mistaken (and maybe this is lore, not fact), he wrote 10 books and took out a second PhD after 50.


Elena Nina wrote:

Posted 2011/03/17 at 05:32 AM EDT

I have to agree with John. Working with a lot of people here in St. George Homecare, I have seen different point of views of people living after their 50s. They have truly accepted the fact that everything has its own reasons.


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