Despite America’s obsession with sexuality, vitality and youthful appearance, a study conducted by the University of Chicago disproves several myths about age, quality of life and happiness. Our common misconception is that older individuals, many dealing with age-related aches and pains and the death of loved ones, are in a state of melancholy and depression. The surprising results of the University of Chicago study, however, indicates that the happiest Americans are those who are older and into the proverbial “Golden Years.”
Study author Yang Yang stated that the study was based on periodic face-to-face interviews from 1972 to 2004. Published in American Sociological Review, the study (n>28,000) looked at individuals ages 18 to 88, a nationally representative group. Overall, the probability of being happy increased at a rate of five percent with every ten years of age.
Yang Yang claims that older people, those in their “Golden Years,” are happier because of where they are in life. That is, those who accept their selves and their lot in life no longer struggle with that search for greatness, accomplishment or fortune. Not everyone is successful enough to purchase the proverbial mansion on the hill. And that is OK. Whatever you have, apartment, bi-level, ranch home, mansion, trailer, cabin or tent, is more than enough to allow you to be happy.
Also, older Americans have learned to lower their expectations. They are more content with their achievements and with what they have. They have learned to accept things the way they are. Older adults have been able to put the words of the Serenity Prayer into action. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.
Dreaded Lesser Prospect
Even as we value youthful energies and potential, we erroneously view getting older as a sometimes-dreaded lesser prospect. A new study proves just the opposite. Youth may not hold the key to happiness, but often inhabit the realm of depression, uncertainty and hopelessness.
The findings, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology (August 25, 2016) are based on surveys of more than 1,500 San Diego-area adults. This study represented individuals from ages 19 to 99. The report, as expected, found that old age brings with it physical problems, memory and cognitive issues and feelings of being disregarded. Loneliness and depression are often experienced during this period of life when we experience a lack of usefulness.
Still, older people appear to be able to cope with life struggles easier. One reason is that older folks have been able to develop a certain amount of wisdom that helps them cope with life challenges more successfully than do youth. The study found that older adult’s mental well- being steadily improved as people grew older. Older adults are generally less stressed and happier with their life situation than their younger counterparts.
Yet too, there is a different system of values between the two dissimilar groups. Youth desperately strive to be accepted and recognized within a group, gauging their status by the number of Facebook “likes” they receive, accumulation of materialistic trappings, as well as, other superficial and adolescent litmus tests.
Not so with adults.
Older Americans are more socially active than their younger counterparts, an activity that is the perfect tonic to stave off depression and loneliness as it enhances socialization and group identity. Being accepted into a group is one of the most important aspects of humanness. Older adults have had decades to connect with a group that shares their interests, beliefs and values. On that score, older adults have gone through the trials and tribulations and those awkward adolescent years of attempting to build confidence and self-esteem and gaining approval. Older adults, most likely, have already climbed that mountain.
Happiness and Longevity
Happiness during the Golden Years seems to be a good predictor of human longevity. A 2011 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that older people who reported being the least happy died at nearly twice the rate in the next five years as people who reported being the most happy. After adjusting for factors like illness, finances and depression, people who were the happiest still had a 35% lower risk of death.
Another study of older adults found that happier people retained their physical function better than those who weren’t happy; their walking speeds even declined more slowly; a perfect example of the Spartan Mens sana in corpore sano, or sound mind in a sound body.
According to a 2002 Yale University study, men and women older than 50 with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.6 years longer than those with negative perceptions.
Helping people is another possible key to happiness following in the wake of Abraham Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs, most specifically Transcendence. Another survey, as revealed in the Wall Street Journal, found that when retirees were asked what brought them the most happiness, most said their greatest happiness came from helping people in need rather than focusing on themselves. The survey found that seniors who volunteer and/or donate money to others were happier (66 percent vs. 52 percent) and healthier (50 percent vs. 43 percent) than those who did not give regularly to others.
Aging provides us with a safe harbor. We experience less of the rollercoaster hormone-spiked drama and uncertainty. And we cultivate more confidence and positive expectation. Still, despite the research and evidence, our society continues to worship the youth culture.
An article by The Huffington Post put it perfectly, “While many cultures celebrate the aging process and venerate their elders, in Western cultures — where youth is fetishized and the elderly are commonly removed from the community and relegated to hospitals and nursing homes — aging can become a shameful experience. Physical signs of human aging tend to be regarded with distaste, and aging is often depicted in a negative light in popular culture, if it is even depicted at all.”
Psychologist Erik Erickson argued that the Western fear of aging keeps us from living full lives. “Lacking a culturally viable ideal of old age, our civilization does not really harbor a concept of the whole of life,” he explained.
Not every society shares those dubious values. Koreans are socialized to respect and show deference to older individuals as well as authority figures. Chinese families traditionally view respect for one’s elders as the highest virtue and adult children are still generally expected to care for their parents in their old age.
Perhaps our society would do well to heed the Asian philosophy of respecting elders, allowing them to mentor us in all things, and especially in the ways of attaining happiness.
Maxim W. Furek is passionately researching the essence of happiness. His rich background includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health and music journalism. His book Sheppton: The Myth, Miracle & Music explores the miraculous and supernatural elements experienced by two entombed Pennsylvania miners. Learn more at shepptonmyth.com