Does Old Age Bring Happiness or Despair?

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Aging brings wrinkles, sagging bodies and frustrating forgetfulness. But getting older is not all bad for many people. Mounting evidence suggests aging may be a key to happiness. There is conflicting research on the subject, however, and experts say it may all boil down to this: Attitude is everything.

Older adults tend to be more optimistic and to have a positive outlook on life than their younger, stressed, counterparts, research is finding. The results take on more meaning in light of the ongoing increase in life expectancy.

In one study, the average number of years a 30-year-old in the United States could expect to live increased 5.4 years for men and 3.6 years for women between 1970 and 2000. During that same time period, men gained 6.8 years of happy life and shed 1.4 unhappy years. Women chalked up 1.3 happy years, but the number of unhappy years didn't change for them, according to research published in 2008 by Yang Yang, a sociologist at the University of Chicago.

Her work suggests that an increase in years of happy life for the 65-plus age group accompanied the increase in life expectancy on average.

The big question, of course, is why seniors are happier.

Rose-colored memories

A more recent study by another team of researchers, published this month in the journal Cortex, suggests one reason: Older adults remember the past through a rosy lens.

The researchers recorded brain activity using fMRI scans while young and older adults viewed a series of photos with positive and negative themes, such as a victorious skier and a wounded soldier.

Results showed in the older adult brain, there were strong connections between emotion-processing regions of the brain and those known to be important for successful formation of memories, particularly when processing positive information. The same strong connections weren't found for the younger participants.

It's also becoming apparent to researchers that being old could lend itself to optimism. In one recent study, both old and young participants were shown virtual faces portraying sadness, anger, fear and happiness. Eye-tracking technology revealed the participants aged 18 to 21 focused on the fearful faces, while those aged 57 to 84 zeroed in on the happy faces, avoiding the angry ones.

The researchers — writing in a 2006 issue of the journal Psychology and Aging — think that as a person's life expectancy decreases, they might focus on what makes them feel good now rather than focusing on the negative.

Aging can bring more cheer as people become more comfortable with themselves and their role in society, according to another study published in 1989 by Walter R. Gove, professor of sociology, emeritus, at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

Older adults enjoy life in general it turns out. In a Pew Research Center survey of 2,969 adults in 2009, seven-in-ten respondents ages 65 and older said they were enjoying more time with their family. About two-thirds reported more time for hobbies, more financial security and not having to work as benefits of old age. About six-in-ten said they get more respect and feel less stress than when they were younger; and just over half cited more time to travel and to do volunteer work.

Contrary findings

But others are skeptical of the link between happiness and growing older.

"The notion that those in old age are happiest is misleading," said Richard Easterlin, a professor of economics at the University of Southern California. "It is based on comparing people of different ages who are the same in terms of income, health, family life."

Easterlin added, "When you take account of the fact that older people have lower income than younger, are less healthy, and more likely to be living alone, then the old are less happy.  Which is exactly what you'd expect."

In fact, scientists have found that as people age, their health declines and social networks atrophy (as peers die), which can make the elderly less happy.

Even if one does succumb to age's dark side, health and happiness don't always go hand-in-hand. It's all about attitude, a study published back in 2005 found. The researchers examined 500 Americans age 60 to 98 who had dealt with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, mental health conditions or a range of other problems. Despite their ills, participants rated their degree of successful aging an average of 8.4 on a scale from 1 to 10 (best score). Other research out that year suggested the sick and disabled are just as happy as the rest of us.

All about attitude

Research by the University of Chicago's Yang suggests that attitude about life, and thus happiness, is partly shaped by the era in which a person is born. For instance, she has found for those born in the 1900s depression declined with age while happiness increased more with age. And individuals born between the Great Depression and the end of World War II were more likely to say they are very happy compared with early baby boomers.

Happiness in old age could come down to how one stacks up to same-age peers or one's own expectations – say you're used to breakfast on a silver platter and when you get older you can only afford the basic English muffin. It turns out, individuals who adapt the best to changes also have the highest expected levels of happiness, according to the Population Reference Bureau.

Despite the conflicting findings about aging and happiness, the good news is that there doesn't appear to be a limit to how much happiness one can achieve in one's life.

"Most people desire happiness," Easterlin told LiveScience. "To my knowledge, no one has identified a limit to attainable happiness."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.