Blog Post

Older Americans Happier Than Youth

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS Staff Writer In recent months, several studies have produced a stream of evidence that older Americans are happier than their younger counterparts.   According to a report published in the Washington Post, researchers have conducted 50,000 detailed interviews with Americans since 1972. Known as the General Social Survey, these interviews are repeated year after year to enable researchers to detect trends and to make comparisons among groups and to see how the same people changed over time. One asks whether they are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy. “One important finding was people who are biologically older are happier than younger adults,” said Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago, who is director of the General Social Survey. The study eliminated the popular assumption that older people seemed happier because they were raised in a generation that was taught from an early age to be content with its lot. Rather, the research found that people older than 65 had not always been happy. It was being older that conferred the contentment that many of them reported. “It is counter to most people's expectations,” said Smith. “People would expect it to be in the opposite direction -- you start off by saying older people have illnesses, deaths of spouses -- they must be less happy.” But this is not what the numbers said. After asking people about their problems, such as physical ailments, problems with relationships, losing loved ones, or becoming crime victims, they found that while older people reported a larger number of health problems, they had fewer of the other difficulties. On the other hand, younger adults had less health trouble but had many more problems with financial, interpersonal and crime, all of which tended to trump their better health. In addition, another recent study looked at job satisfaction among people of different ages and again found that those who kept working past age 65 had the highest level of job satisfaction - going against the stereotype that older people keep working mostly because they can't do without the money. “A lot of people think of people working in their 60s and 70s as trapped in their jobs. Most of the people who continue working are people who like their jobs,”  Smith said. “Most older workers work because they enjoy their jobs; those who did not were mostly able to retire and pursue other things. In 1960, the old were the poorest segment in America, and they have become less poor over the last half-century.” Why then do so many other studies show that elderly Americans are at increased risk for depression and other mental health issues? Catherine Ross, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, conducted a study to analyze this phenomenon and found that advanced age was positively correlated with feeling positive emotions. But she also found that being older was negatively correlated with active emotions. In other words, older people had both more positive and more passive emotional states. “The reason we think the elderly have higher levels of depression is not because they have higher levels of negative emotions but that they have higher levels of passivity,” Ross said. The problem may lie in their having lower levels of energy, she said. “ . . . Maybe the answers lie in increasing levels of energy, like reading a book or taking a walk - mental and physical activity . . . .The sadness part may not be a negative emotion but a manifestation of the energy level. “Young people -- the very people we think from the stereotype are best off -- in fact have high levels of anger and anxiety and also high levels of depression, compared to middle-aged adults.” Younger adults were far more likely to have financial worries, troubled emotional relationships and professional stressors, she said. She concluded: “The image of youth or young adulthood as the best time of life is probably not an accurate stereotype.”   © All Rights Reserved, Living His Life Abundantly/Women of Grace.