Older Americans May Be Happier Than Younger Ones

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 14, 2008

Many times in science, research studies point in conflicting directions. Part of the challenge -- and the fun -- of watching science is to try to sort out lines of intersecting evidence hidden amid a welter of confusing data.

In recent months, however, several studies have produced a stream of evidence that mostly points in the same direction, and also happens to overturn one of the most stubborn American stereotypes: the belief that this is a land whose gifts, charms and joys flow mostly to young people.

The studies show that when you check on how happy people are at various ages, the elderly generally come out ahead.

Since 1972, researchers have conducted 50,000 detailed interviews with Americans. The questions of the General Social Survey 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 were biologically older are happier than younger adults," said Tom W. Smith of the University of Chicago, who is the director of the General Social Survey.

The study, conducted by researcher Yang Yang at the University of Chicago, used the granular detail of the survey to eliminate the possibility 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, Yang found, in research published in the American Sociological Review, those 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, who spoke about Yang's paper because she was not available. "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."

Smith said he and other colleagues had also examined the phenomenon from a different perspective, by asking people about their problems -- including physical ailments, problems with relationships, losing a beloved family member and becoming the victim of a crime. Smith found that older people reported a larger number of health problems but tended to report far fewer difficulties overall -- fewer financial, interpersonal and crime problems.

The younger adults, Smith said, had less trouble with their health but had many more of the other kinds of predicaments, and those, in the long run, tended to trump their better health.

Yet another study, Smith said, 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."

The studies present an interesting puzzle, said Catherine Ross, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Yang's finding that older adults are generally happier than younger ones seems superficially at odds with many studies that have found that older people are at higher risk for depression and other mental health problems.

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