When you think of old age, do you think of happy, peaceful and relaxed people, or do you think of grumpy, anxious, uncertain and sad ones?
If you tend to think the latter, you might be surprised to find out that research has repeatedly shown that the opposite is actually true. Counterintuitively, older people tend to be happier than younger people – despite the ravages of ageing. But why?
Happiness, loosely defined as a feeling of contentment and pleasure is something that most people spend their whole lives seeking. Ironically, it’s as you get older that the pursuit of happiness tends to reach fulfillment.
While your physical health is likely to decline as you get older, it’s in mental health that older people have the advantage. The age that causes the most unhappiness, stress, worry and anger tends to be late 40s to early 50s. As people get older, worry, sadness, stress and anger tend to decline, while enjoyment, happiness and feelings of wellbeing tend to increase. Studies have repeatedly shown that there’s a gradual improvement in mental health as people age. While you are likely to lose certain things you hold dear (such as looks, mental sharpness, and vigour) as you age, you are also likely to find that elusive quality – happiness.
So why are people generally happier in old age? Researchers have proposed a number of possible theories to explain this phenomenon:
- Older people tend to be better at regulating their emotions than younger ones, and are generally more emotionally stable and compassionate.
- Older people have fewer fights and are able to find better solutions to conflict.
- They are better able to recall happy memories rather than negative ones – something known as the positivity effect. This leads them to view life in a sunnier light.
- Brain physiology changes as you get older, with studies showing that older people are less responsive to stressful images than younger ones.
- Older people tend to seek out situations that will make them happy rather than ones that will lower their spirits.
- Older people tend to be better at dealing with loss and disappointment, and can better brush off the things that stress them and approach life with greater wisdom.
- They tend to set goals that will improve their feelings of wellbeing.
- Older adults often experience higher levels of life satisfaction when thinking of what they have achieved throughout their life.
- As people increasingly start to recognise their own mortality, they become better at living in the moment and finding satisfaction and meaning in the “now”.
- Older people have discovered what matters most in life and try to fill their lives with that, rather than the trivial and unimportant.
- Younger people tend to be weighed down by educational, career, romantic and financial demands, and to feel pressure to make the best choices. They are also more negatively impacted by peer pressure and the need to measure up to other people. Ageing is associated with a reduction in these risk factors for poor mental health.
- Older people usually know themselves better and are more comfortable with who they are.
- Improvements in medicine and technology mean that many of the problems associated with ageing can be countered and mitigated somewhat; life is easier for older people today than it used to be.
- Many older people are determined to make the most of their remaining years.
While most of these are based on speculation rather than direct evidence, it all adds up towards a brighter picture of ageing than you might have thought.
However, having a positive attitude towards ageing is important to help maintain higher levels of happiness. Research has shown that people with a negative belief about ageing are not only less happy as they get older, but live shorter lives as well. Happiness certainly does play a part in making you healthier.
Fostering social connections also helps: read more here.
So, while there are many challenges to ageing, it’s good to know that getting older is not all bad and brings with it some pleasant surprises!
Managing change as you age is one of the keys to staying happy and well adjusted – find out how you can deal with it effectively here.