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May 3, 2021

The Swinging Sixties: Why We’re Happier at 60+

You’ve probably heard the saying that life begins at 40 but did you know that happiness tends to increase around age 60? Contrary to what you may have heard, studies show that getting older is linked to higher levels of satisfaction and greater feelings of wellbeing. Across the globe, researchers have found that people over the age of 60 tend to be happiest. Let’s take a closer look at what some of these studies say.

Thoughts on Why Happiness Increases Later in Life

A 2016 study by the United Kingdom’s Office for National Statistics found that people aged 65 to 79 peaked when it came to happiness, life satisfaction, and feeling life was worthwhile. These measures declined in people over the age of 80. The survey included more than 300,000 adults, and it revealed that people between the ages of 45 and 59 had the lowest levels of satisfaction and the highest levels of anxiety.

The researchers said that the younger group is burdened by caring for children and elderly parents at the same time. They may also find it difficult to balance work and family life. In contrast, younger people and those over 60 perhaps have more time to engage in activities that contribute to their wellbeing. Meanwhile, the falloff in happiness and wellbeing after the age of 80 was linked to loneliness, isolation, and poor health.

Fewer Stressors and Better Stress Responses

A Today survey of 1,500 adults between the ages of 45 and 69 found that individuals over the age of 60 were enjoying this phase of their lives. Seventy-two percent of them said they felt younger than their age, while 79% said their journeys so far had been “about” what they expected or even better.

Director of Oregon State University’s Center for Healthy Aging Research Dr. Carolyn Aldwin put forward the reason for this state of affairs. She said mature people find several sources of happiness, especially when they’re in good health. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the 60-plus respondents in the survey reported that they were pleased with their health. Aldwin said older people also tend to worry less, and they respond to stressors better than younger people.

Another study, this time among residents of San Diego between the ages of 21 and 99, found that people in their nineties were most content. However, individuals in their twenties were more depressed and stressed. This study, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, included 1,546 people.

Unlike other studies, it didn’t detect any decline in wellbeing in middle-aged individuals or people at the end of their lives. Instead, the researchers reported a linear relationship between getting older and becoming happier. Senior author of the study and director of the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging, Dilip Jeste, said older people were consistently “happier, more satisfied, less depressed, had less anxiety and less perceived stress than younger respondents.”

Changing Goals and Brain Physiology

Director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, Laura Carstensen, offers additional insights. Her research found that people start to think differently as they come to terms with their morality. Carstensen said older people tend to prioritize relationships and meaningful activities over exploration and expanding their horizons. She noted that when people focus on “emotionally meaningful goals,” they feel better, and they experience negative emotions less frequently and more fleetingly.

Meanwhile, the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging researchers suggested that the physiology of the older adult brain could have a role to play in the increase in happiness. Studies show that the brains of older people are less responsive to stressful images. Brain imaging studies revealed that the image of a smiling baby evoked a lot of response in both younger and older people. However, a picture of a car accident created a lot of emotional activity in the brains of younger people and a subdued response in the brains of mature individuals.

A Global Analysis of Happiness in Later Life

Over the years, many researchers have determined that happiness forms a U-shape over the life span. A meta-analysis of seven large surveys and more than a million randomly sampled people from 51 countries held this to be true. The researchers found that people are very happy in their teens and early twenties, and then they become increasingly miserable. They reach their lowest point in their early 50s, after which point their happiness increases into retirement and old age. This was the case across countries. The studies included the General Social Survey (North America), the European Social Survey and the Understanding Society survey (Great Britain).

Embrace the Research and Let Old Stereotypes Die!

Many people fear getting older because they think life goes downhill. However, research shows that this isn’t the case. Even though there are variations in the studies, they all show that people in their sixties are more likely to be satisfied with their lives. If you’re approaching this point in your journey, you shouldn’t despair. Focusing on your health and activities that support your overall wellbeing can make this the best time of your life.

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