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This article originally appeared on Miller-McCune.com.
It’s not easy getting old. The body starts to break down, and the mind begins to fade. These things, it is often thought, will leave us depressed and unhappy. As researchers are finding out, however, they actually don’t.
These ravages of time, as it turns out, have very little to do with one’s happiness. Actually, older people report being just as happy, if not happier, than their younger compatriots. Researchers who study aging and happiness have dubbed this the “paradox of well-being.”
But why? What’s going on?
Last summer, four researchers in the University of Virginia psychology department -- professors Shigehiro Oishi and Timothy A. Salthouse, along with Ph.D. candidates Karen L. Siedlecki (the lead investigator on the project and now a postdoc at Columbia) and Elliot M. Tucker-Drob -- decided to try to understand a little more about what is behind this apparent paradox.
They started from the premise that there is a lot of literature out there already on the different things that might make people feel better or worse about their lives, including their health and their mental functioning. But are these determinants of “subjective well-being” (the term favored by the researchers) the same across all ages? Do certain things matter more as people get older? Do certain things matter less?
The researchers surveyed 818 people aged 18 to 94. They asked a battery of questions trying to get at the underlying correlates of life satisfaction: How healthy were these people? Were they depressed, anxious or neurotic generally? How good were they at various cognitive processing tasks? And what about their general knowledge and experiences?
By including all these factors and surveying people from all ages, the researchers thought they could produce the most comprehensive study to date. Their findings are reported in The Journal of Positive Psychology.
Some of what they found was expected. For example, people who were generally anxious, depressed or neurotic (or, in the parlance of the psychologists, people who had a high “negative affect”) were significantly less happy. Interestingly, the effect was roughly the same across all ages.
Once the researchers controlled for this “negative affect,” however, the big surprise was that healthier people were not really any happier. “Our prediction was that health should be strongly associated with well-being among older people because health seems to be such a huge concern,” Oishi said. “We didn’t find that, so that was surprising.”
One possibility is that people who generally keep a positive disposition do not get thrown off by health problems. Rather, as Oishi explained, people are very good at rationalizing their circumstances and, if they are generally upbeat, can fairly easily convince themselves that whatever health problems they have are not that bad -- somebody, after all, is probably worse off. On the other hand, people who are generally pessimistic might dwell on even the smallest problems.
This lack of correlation between age and well-being was true across all ages studied, though Siedlecki does suggest a little caution -- the population the researchers interviewed was generally healthy, and the measure of health used was self-reported health. “It’s hard to be definitive,” she said. “But it’s clear the correlation is fairly small, and if there is any relationship, it is minimal. What’s important is that negative affect is a much stronger predictor of life satisfaction.”
Lee Drutman is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal.