With Age Comes Wisdom... and Happiness

Survey finds older folks report a higher level of contentedness

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By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, June 16, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- If you're happy and you know it, chances are you're no whippersnapper. That's the upshot of a new Internet survey that found senior citizens report being happier than younger people.

The findings contradict the common assumption that happiness declines with age, said study lead author Heather Pond Lacey, a postdoctoral fellow at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System in Michigan. "In our culture, we think of old age as a time of helplessness, disability, loneliness and isolation," she said, "none of which are necessarily true."

Using an online survey, Lacey and her colleagues asked 542 people about their level of contentedness. Of those, 273 were aged 21 to 40 and 269 were between 60 and 86. Ten percent were black, another 10 percent were Hispanic, and about half were women.

On a 1-to-10 scale, with 10 representing the highest level of happiness, the younger group reported an average happiness level of 6.65, while the older group stood at 7.32.

The results appear in the June 2006 issue of the Journal of Happiness Studies, which focuses on the field of "positive psychology."

Curiously, neither age group had a good grasp of the other group's happiness level. The younger group underestimated the happiness of 70-year-olds, saying they'd only register 6.19 on the scale. And the older group thought 30-year-olds would be happier, at 7.65.

Also, both groups assumed happiness levels would decline over time. "People were imagining that that happiness has a decreasing trajectory, when actually we see the opposite pattern," Lacey said.

The study didn't examine why happiness levels rise over a lifetime, but Lacey speculated it may have something to do with greater appreciation of life in general. "We also seem to get better at managing our moods -- the 'don't-sweat-the-small-stuff' kind of idea," she said.

Lacey acknowledged, however, that the survey only included Internet users, potentially leaving out older people who may be too sick or anti-social to take part.

"That's a very real problem, something we worried about," Lacey said. However, she noted that other studies have also shown that many people tend to be happier as they grow older.

Dr. James S. Goodwin, director of the Sealy Center on Aging at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, complimented the study, and said most younger people do indeed have "very strange views" about aging.

"But I'm not sure we should be that concerned about that," he said. "It's a fairly harmless bias, as biases go. They will figure it out eventually."

More information

For the latest in aging research, visit the Alliance for Aging Research.

SOURCES: Heather Pond Lacey, postdoctoral fellow, VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, Mich; James S. Goodwin, M.D., distinguished chair in geriatric medicine and director, Sealy Center on Aging, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston; June 2006; Journal of Happiness Studies

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