Happiness Grows with Age, But Depends on Generation

People tend to get happier as they age, but individuals' overall well-being depends on the era in which they were born, a new report shows. For example, adults who lived through the Great Depression tend to report lower levels of well-being than those who were raised in more recent prosperous times, researchers say.

Researchers looked at data on the health and well-being of several thousand people drawn from two extensive U.S. longitudinal studies. (In longitudinal studies, scientists follow the same individuals over time.) They found that older adults were not as satisfied with their lives as younger and middle-aged adults overall.

But the entire pool of participants covered people across several generations. For instance, one of the surveys the researchers looked at, the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, had data on 60-year-old participants born in 1920 and tested in 1980 as well as 60-year-olds born in 1950 and tested in 2010, with many others sampled in between, the researchers said.

When the team considered the time period the participants were born, they found that life satisfaction generally grew with age. This held true even after they took into account factors like health, medication, sex, ethnicity and education.

"When individuals make judgments about their well-being, those judgments reflect more than just an assessment of the individual's current situation," the researchers, led by Angelina R. Sutin of Florida State University, wrote in their report in the journal Psychological Science. "Along with factors such as personality, life events, and demographic characteristics, the sociocultural environment in which individuals grow up may also contribute to ratings of well-being."

Older generations — especially people born between 1885 and 1925 —started off with lower levels of well-being compared with those born more recently, which could be the result of greater economic prosperity and better educational opportunities and public programs in the latter half of the 20th century, the researchers said.

The results add an interesting caveat to previous studies have found that greater happiness comes with age. The research also suggests that today's dire job market and high unemployment rates in the United States could have a long-lasting toll on young people, Sutin and her colleagues warned.

"As young adults today enter a stagnant workforce, the challenges of high unemployment may have implications for their well-being that long outlast the period of joblessness," the team wrote. "Economic turmoil may impede psychological, as well as financial, growth even decades after times get better."

The research was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Aging.

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