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Why the Older You Are, the Happier You Get

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There is one inalienable truth about happiness. Grumpy old men, and women, are not grumpy whatsoever -- contrary to popular myth. In fact, this truth remains the most contrarian of all research on happiness, and, to the best of my knowledge, is still the most evidence-based.

In a brilliant study published in 2010 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Arthur Stone and colleagues interviewed over 340,000 people in the United States by telephone to ask about how happy they were. The survey asked each person to rank overall life satisfaction on a 10-point scale and to answer six yes-or-no questions about enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, anger, and sadness.

What the researchers found surprised them. Levels of stress and anger decline progressively and significantly after people pass through their early 20s. This is not a story about the feeling of emancipation that comes with graduating from college or paying for your own cellphone plan. We humans shed stress and anger bit by bit as we age.

Over 50 and Smiling?

When it comes to the feeling of worry, it follows a slightly different trajectory. Worry rises after age 18, but then falls again after 50. Perhaps by that time all your anxious worries have already materialized -- the career that never reached the heights you once imagined; the marriage that fizzled; the house that foreclosed; the friends who betrayed you; the children who turned out less than perfect. After age 50, there is nothing further to worry about and so one becomes increasingly happy. Or at least that's one explanation.

If true, this is of great significance for managers in recessionary times. Many over 50 have been thrust into long-term unemployment. Yet thanks to this new study, we now have powerful data to fight age discrimination in the workplace. Older workers are happy workers, and happy workers are more sensitive to client needs. Leaders, take note.

The study followed a careful methodology. All the various feelings were measured using tools called "Hedonic WB" and "Global WB." WB stands for well-being. This reflects one's own subjective view of the experience of well-being. External realities don't matter. You could be living in squalor (as long as you have a phone and can be reached in order to be surveyed) and you still apparently feel more and more content as you age. Amazing when you consider that by age 85 (the happiness apex apparently) one's physical health is generally not top notch.

Why would people be happier when they get older? Is it because they have accumulated material goods over their life span? Do riches make people happier? Apparently not. Being a man or a woman didn't make a difference, being single or partnered didn't make a difference, being employed or not didn't matter and neither did having children at home. In other words, outside circumstances didn't affect the outcome as far as the researchers could tell. Contentment is a state of mind.

Maybe world views change with maturity. You get wise and realize, by the time you reach your 80s, that possessions and earthly glory don't count. It's the emotional-spiritual dimension that really matters.

But there may be another explanation still. Perhaps the progressive elimination of crucial nerve cells in the brain have obliterated bad memories so there's nothing remembered worth worrying about? Nerve cells die at random, I was taught. But maybe that's not true. Maybe the nerve networks that record good times stay intact longer than those others that hold awkward, humiliating, depressing moments that you have ruminated over so often that the circuits are worn from overuse, burnt out, and the bad memories have melted away forever.

Whatever the reason behind the study's results, the news is good for older people (and something to look forward to even if you're young). By the time you hit 85, you'll be more satisfied with yourself than you ever were. Bob Dylan was right. You'll be so much younger then, you're older than that now.

This essay is adapted and updated from the author's 2010 blog at Longwoods.com

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