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How Happy Are You?

Are you happier now than when you were 20 or 30 or even 40 years old? I believe I am, but according to a new study from the University of Michigan and the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Healthcare System, I am an exception:

“Older people ‘mis-remember’ how happy they were as youths, just as youths ‘mis-predict’ how happy (or unhappy) they will be as they age.”
- University of Michigan Health System, 13 June 2006

It is one of the enduring myths about elders we have discussed here at Time Goes By - that they are less happy than young people - and the stereotype infects old and young alike, even in this new study:

“Overall, people got it wrong, believing that most people become less happy as they age, when in fact this study and others have shown that people tend to become happier over time,” says lead author Heather Lacey, Ph.D., a VA postdoctoral fellow and member of the U-M Medical School’s Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine.

“Not only do younger people believe that older people are less happy, but older people believe they and others must have been happier ‘back then’. Neither belief is accurate.”

- University of Michigan Health System, 13 June 2006

This is the first study focusing on people’s memories and predictions of happiness over their lives and included 540 people who were either age 21 to 40 or older than 60. Most other studies of happiness in old age have concentrated on people who are chronically ill, disabled or have other age-related impairments.

Those earlier studies, according to Dr. Peter Ubel who conducted some of them, show that sick people are adaptable to their circumstances and are often just as happy as elders who are healthy:

“People often believe that happiness is a matter of circumstance, that if something good happens, they will experience long-lasting happiness, or if something bad happens, they will experience long-term misery,” he says.

“But instead, people’s happiness results more from their underlying emotional resources — resources that appear to grow with age. People get better at managing life’s ups and downs, and the result is that as they age, they become happier — even though their objective circumstances, such as their health, decline.”
- University of Michigan Health System, 13 June 2006

Haven’t we said something similar just recently? Why, yes we did – only last Friday:

“In fact, it is arguable that because elders have more opportunities to cope with big, often sudden life changes – retirement (forced or planned), widowhood, reduced economic circumstances, chronic illness, leaving their homes are a few examples – they are better at adapting than younger people. Survival requires that they be so.”

Adaptability was more on my mind than happiness when I wrote that, but certainly the first contributes to our sense of contentment.

Like the children of Lake Wobegon, most people in the study believed they were above average and would therefore be happier in old age than most other people. Overall, the study participants, young and old, believed the average person would be less happy at age 70 than at age 30. But at 65, that’s just not true for me. What about you?

[Hat tip to Melinda Applegate and to M. Sinclair Stevens of Words Into Bytes and Zanthan Gardens for forwarding the happiness study.]


I think that the authors are mistaking feelings of "nostalgia" with "unhappiness." For it is natural to look back and think about the past sometimes with regret and at others with an illusion that things were better *back when/then.* That is not connected to one's state of being here and now or what a person does with all those reflections in the future.

For examnple, I think back to my past quite a bit, but understanding it helps me move on and feel happiness or joy in a deeper and more meaningful and satisfying way than ever before in my youth. But I still have a tendency to look at the past and think it was better then. That's nostalgia - not unhappiness.

If "younger people believe that older people are less happy" - why they don't yet understand the value of looking back to think forward!

Thanks for sharing this -- I am much happier than I was when I was younger! I wouldn't go back for anything in the world (even if it were possible :) I like being who I am and the age I am - ok there are a few things I would like to fix :) but for the most part ---

I am much happier now than before, but I don't know whether it's the product of age, or divorce. I always thought I would like to live alone. I have a few regrets for things I did not do, but no nostalgia. I wake up in the morning, listen to the birds that never sang for me in New Jersey, and I am happy.

I've come to realize that overall I've always been a "happy" person. But I also learned years ago that one's happiness must come from within. People and material things cannot and do not provide true happiness.
With that said, I have to say I love this stage of my life...the freedom to do what I want, when I want. Parenting responsibilities are long gone, I'm happy with career choices I made, my husband is now retired and we have the resources to enjoy life. But am I happier now at age 59 than I was in my 30's or 40's? I don't think so....I'm just as happy, but in a different way. I also think "attitude" and one's ability to adapt has a lot to do with it.

Well, I don't know about being happier now, but I know I'm more content with my life and myself. I look back to see where I've been so I know where I'm going and then - I do wonder what my life would have been like if I knew then what I know now. This is a game I play with myself and sometimes it makes me sad. Mostly, I smile at my own muddled dramatics of the past. I do know, I did the best I could with what I had. This musing I consider a privilege of age and I use it well. No, there's no way I'd ever want to go back.

I have always found that my mood or state of mind at any given time determines what I might say about my happiness quotient. I think that is the nature of life for everyone.

As an eternal optimist for whom the cup is always half full, I must admit there seems to be a slight leak in the cup at the moment. But, I think that the findings of the University of Michigan Health Study are, indeed, applicable to most of us. Though I may be experiencing the doldrums, therefore coloring anything I might say about happiness, I am confident that with time and patience my happiness quotient will again break the sound barrier.

I do believe this, living in the moment, living for today, living with hope, is the flight path through a vista leading directly to happiness.

As for whether or not I am more happy at 70 than 30, I can only say life is just different, but if I knew then what I know now.......

There were highs and lows in the years of young adulthood and early middle-age...happiness came like good weather. Now, those spikes are enjoyable, but it's the contentment, the pleasure of small things, the appreciation of the moment -- this moment, when there is no fresh grief -- that makes over 60 a truly sacred time.

Happiness is highly over-rated. Nearly half a life-time ago, I was happier; but, I was also unhappier. Life was more exciting--good and bad. Today, I am more content. There is much to be said for contentment!!

An interesting piece, as usual. As the depressive episodes I suffer from have got worse as I have got older, it may sound odd to say that I would not turn back the clock. Its not a question of being happier then than now or the other way around. I simply like myself better now and feel I am becoming more 'myself'. Maybe I am simply growing into the person I was meant or want to be.

I’m happier now than I was as a young person (I’m 60). Indeed, I can’t remember having a completely happy day before I was about 45, 50. There’s no intrinsic reason for this, no bad parents or the like. Indeed, it’d be difficult to find better people than my parents. I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t think my mother was the finest person they’d ever met and my father the finest man they’d ever met. I agree with them. It’s just that I was a morose bugger as a child, youth, young man, although I put on a good front. There’s no particular reason for this.
I’ve mellowed and learned to accept the good things in life (fine wine, good books, great music, writing blathering emails). Oh, and standing on the south coast of Victoria looking out at the Southern Ocean. That’s good too.

I didn't know who I am until my fifties. Now, at 60, I'm retired and contented with life. I have my wife, kids, and grandkids, and experience much joy through them. I'm thankful for my health, and financial independence. I'm not wealthy, but I don't have to worry about my next meal or a roof over my head. I've just finished reading "Stumbling on Happiness", by Daniel Gilbert and what I was most impressed by was his assertion that the things we think will make us happy in the future leave us dissatisfied once we achieve them, and the worst experiences of our lives (at the time) turn out to be the best things that ever happened to us. So my philosophy is to take each day as it comes and squeeze what joy we can from both the good and bad.

Hi Ronni

Great post - and something I ponder quite often, even though I can by no means yet be called an elder! I think it would be an interesting experiment to track a group of people from the study's lower age bracket right up until they reach the older age bracket. Why? Because I'm not sure that the major determinant of our happiness is our age - I think it is some other imponderable linked to our personality and a general outlook to life that transcends age. I would take a bet that the people who were more negative in their youth remain more so later in life.

It sounds trite but Abraham Lincoln's quote that "people are generally about as happy as they make up their minds to be" sums up my position nicely. My mom suffered from polycystic kidney disease and suffered all kinds of setbacks in the 7 years that she was on dialysis. But through it all she still counted herself as generally happy - she always had stuff to look forward to and friends to see and excelled at her job. By father on the other hand has lived to age 84 without any serious health problems, lives in a large house that he adores and has precious few worries in life - but he is basically unhappy and expecting the worst all of the time. And when complete disaster does not strike as predicted, instead of being happy and relieved, he is vaguely disappointed at being wrong!

I think happiness is far more complex than we know. Part of it lies in wanting what you have (and I don't mean settling for a horrible situation, but rather not being blinded by the grass-is-greener syndrome), and part of it is being grateful for things. Again, it sounds cliched, but every day on my commute to or from work I list the things I'm grateful for. Some are on the list every day, some come and go. But it's amazing how much better you feel after you've counted your blessings!

Having said all that, though, I do think that mostly as we get older we perceive ourselves as being happier because there are fewer peaks and troughs in our emotional lives. I mean, when you were 18 the fact that he didn't call was enough to ruin your week. But the flipside was that when he did call you were on a total endorphin high for days. Although this is fun, it's also exhausting, so the relative equilibrium we achieve as we get older means fewer peaks, but also fewer troughs and therefore more overall contentment. And I agree with some of the previous commenters who have said that as you get older you learn more skills to cope with upheaval and change, which has the general effect of making you feel happier.

Sometimes I think I am generally happy because I am so easily pleased - and I have realised that this is not a bad thing! ;-)

You may agree or disagree, but lifes experiences make up who you become. As the old saying goes Happiness is in the eye of the beholder. I know that there is another saying that belongs to that verse, but if you are depressed all the time what happiness do you have. People need to slow down and smell the flowers, without getting stung.
Even the people with chronic illness are able to look on the bright side, yet there are those that we will never change and they will always be grump party poopers.
Oh, to answer if I'm happier now or then, it's in the moment.

I look back fondly on the work I did in my twenties, but I think I'm much happier now than I was then. I have even more responsibility now, but also more control over my schedule. I have more health problems, but more comfort and security to offset them. I know the time is coming when I will have to deal with the gradual loss of my family, but I have a lifetime of memories to carry me through those days. In all, I'd say I'm happier now, and that I am responsible for that happiness.

Happy feelings for me are a transient thing. I can wake up in a happy mood if I've had a good nights sleep. I can be happy that it has rained all night so I don't have to go out and 'bucket' the garden. I can be happy that it's not a working day, so I get to sloth and read blogs.

Now, Peace Of Mind... that's different, more permanent... reading through the post, and the comments, reinforces for me that it's not the things that happen to us that dictate our level of 'happiness' rather how we react and accept or otherwise.

Thanks for the post and the article link Jacqui.

oops, sorry, of course Ronni not Jacqui. The 'younger' me would have been mortified about making such a silly mistake, I would have been 'unhappy' about it for hours. Today I can comfortably say 'oops', made a mistake, correct and move on.

Our lives are made up of a series of building-blocks of time; days, hours, even minutes. We get to 'color' each part as we live in these moments.

Somebody already quoted "We are as happy as we make up our minds to be".
Hear! Hear!........but it's not always easy.....

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