Boomers Miserable, Seniors Happiest
old couple.
Credit: stock.xchng.com

While Baby Boomers struggle with rising mortgages and kids who barely know their hard-working parents, senior citizens are apparently having a ball.

About half U.S. residents in their late 80s report being very happy, while the figure for younger age groups plummets to a third or less, a new study finds. Another recent study found depression peaks at about age 44 around the globe.

But things are looking up for anyone planning to hang around: Americans, at least, grow happier as they age.

The new study also found that baby boomers are not as content as other generations in other eras. Other findings:

  • African Americans are less happy than whites.
  • Men are less happy than women.
  • Happiness can rise and fall between depending on economics of an era.
  • With age, the differences narrow.

"Understanding happiness is important to understanding quality of life. The happiness measure is a guide to how well society is meeting people's needs," said lead researcher Yang Yang, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. The study is published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

The study

The research used data from "happiness research" — responses to questions about contentment with overall life gathered in the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center.

Since 1972, the GSS has asked a cross section of Americans the same question: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?" The question was asked in interviews of population samples that ranged from about 1,500 to 3,000.

Yang charted happiness across age and racial groups and found that among 18-year-olds, white women are the happiest, with a 33 percent probability of being very happy, followed by white men (28 percent), black women (18 percent) and black men (15 percent).

Differences vanish over time, however. Black men and black women in their late 80s both have just more than a 50 percent chance of being very happy, while white men and white women are close behind.

Middle-age misery

It's no secret that life hasn't lived up to the expectations of boomers, many of whom can't even get a decent vacation. The key to happiness seems to involve maturity.

And middle-age misery is not limited to the United States. In a separate study released in January, researchers in the United States and the UK looked at data on 2 million people from 80 nations and found most people are miserable in middle age. The probability of depression peaks around age 44, they found.

"Some people suffer more than others but in our data the average effect is large," said University of Warwick Economist Professor Andrew Oswald, who participated in the global study. "It happens to men and women, to single and married people, to rich and poor, and to those with and without children. Nobody knows why we see this consistency."

In the United States, Oswald and his colleagues found, unhappiness peaks at around age 40 for women and 50 years of age for men.

"With age comes positive psychosocial traits, such as self-integration and self-esteem," figures Yang. These signs of maturity could contribute to a better sense of overall well-being. Also, differences between groups decrease with age due to the equalization of resources that contribute to happiness, such as access to health care, Medicare and Medicaid, and the loss of social support due to the deaths of spouses and friends, Yang added.

Other keys to happiness based on previous research: Give away money, be religious, be a Republican.

The Baby Boom generation (born from 1946-1964) were the least happy among those surveyed in Yang's new study, too.

"This is probably due to the fact that the generation as a group was so large, and their expectations were so great, that not everyone in the group could get what he or she wanted as they aged due to competition for opportunities. This could lead to disappointment that could undermine happiness," Yang said.

The 33 years of data revealed upticks in happiness when the nation flourished economically. For example, she found that 1995 was a very good year on the happiness scale.