It might be thought that if anyone is in most need of positive psychology, it would be seniors with all the aches, pains and stresses they may have to endure. However in an article in the BBC News Magazine, Tali Sharot, a neuroscientist at University College, London, discusses some surprising findings on how happiness changes with age. She is the author of two books on optimism, The Optimism Bias and The Science of Optimism.
How Does Happiness Change With Age?
As she says, people assume that we go through the following stages:
- as children we live a carefree existence
- we go through the miserable confusion of teenage years (“Who am I?”)
- we regain happiness once we figure it all out and settle down
- then we grow grumpy and lonely with every additional wrinkle and grey hair.
Apparently this is utterly wrong. It turns out that happiness is indeed high in youth, but declines steadily hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s – midlife crisis, anyone? Then, miraculously, our sense of happiness takes a turn for the better, increasing as we grow older.
This U-shape pattern of happiness over the life span (high during youth and old age, low during midlife) has been observed across the globe, from Switzerland to Ecuador, Romania to China. All in all, it has been documented in more than 70 countries, in surveys of more than 500,000 people in both developing and developed countries.
Great Apes Follow The U-shape Pattern
You might posit many reasons why this happens but, just last month, a group led by Prof Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick, reported that happiness of our evolutionary cousins – the great apes – also follows a U-shape pattern throughout life (PDF file).
The well-being of 508 apes was estimated by asking their human care-givers to assess it. Apes, like humans, were less happy during midlife than when younger or older. The existence of a midlife crisis in the great ape strengthens the notion that the pattern of happiness throughout life is hardly due to socioeconomic factors. There could be two possible explanations
Possibly it’s due to “the survival of the happiest” – happiness is known to be related to longevity. Put simply, the happier live longer, while the pessimistic die prematurely, possibly because the latter experience more stress, which impacts on health negatively. But this would only explain the senior end of the U-shaped curve.
The Bad News Doesn’t Get Through
Secondly, the U-shape could arise in both humans and apes because of similar age-related changes in brain structures that influence happiness. Our frontal lobes mature well into our mid-20s and then start deteriorating as early as 45. This means that as we develop, we slowly increase some frontal-lobe function, which we then lose later in life. One such function is our ability to learn from bad news.
Discounting bad news, as most of us do, presumably allows us to keep a rosy view of the future, and while this is not necessarily realistic it does keep us happy. Check out the article linked to at the start of this post for more details on these surprising findings on senior happiness.