Since the beginning of time (or at least since the late 1940s), TV ads have mostly been populated by smiling, cavorting young people, pushing everything from Lite beer to Carnival Cruises. The obvious take-away from this is that people in their 20’s are the happiest segment of the population. Right? Wrong. How about 40-year-olds? Wrong again. Actually, it’s us!
“There’s this idea that old age is bad, it’s all gloom and doom and older people are usually depressed, grumpy and unhappy,” says study author Dr. Dilip Jeste, a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Center on Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego. According to his research, and that of many others, people in their 20’s and 30’s reported having the highest levels of depression, anxiety and stress, plus the lowest levels of happiness, satisfaction and wellbeing. Older people, on the other hand, were the happiest.
“Older people are much better able to brush off life’s small stressors and accumulate a valuable thing called wisdom: being emotionally stable and compassionate, knowing yourself and being able to make smart social decisions,” Jeste says.
Yes, older people deal with health issues, loss of loved ones, and fewer years to look forward to, but those things don’t add up to unhappiness. Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, has found evidence that people’s goals and reasoning change as they come to appreciate their mortality and recognize that their time on Earth is finite. “When people face endings, they tend to shift from goals about exploration and expanding horizons to ones about savoring relationships and focusing on meaningful activities,” she said. “When you focus on emotionally meaningful goals, life gets better, you feel better, and the negative emotions become less frequent and more fleeting when they occur.”
“It’s really too simplistic,” says Carstensen, “to say that older people are ‘happy.’ In our study, they are more positive. But they’re also more likely than younger people to experience mixed emotions—sadness at the same time you experience happiness; you know, that tear in the eye when you’re smiling at a friend. And other research has shown that older people seem to engage with sadness more comfortably. They’re more accepting of sadness than younger people are. And we suspect that this may help to explain why older people are better than younger people at solving hotly charged emotional conflicts and debates. Older people can view injustice with compassion, but not despair.”
In a recent TED Talk, Carstensen explained, “As we age, our time horizons grow shorter and our goals change. When we recognize that we don’t have all the time in the world, we see our priorities most clearly. We take less notice of trivial matters—we’re more appreciative, more open to reconciliation. We invest in more emotionally important parts of life, and life gets better, so we’re happier day-to-day.”
She ended her talk with a quote from her 92-year-old father: “Let’s stop talking only about how to save the old folks and start talking about how to get them to save us all.”