Input for the International Day of Older Persons

The elderly are among the happiest people

How old would YOU like to get?

If you thought of 100, you’re not alone. Young Swiss people would like to reach one hundred years of age, or thereabouts. The culturally deep-rooted desire for eternal youth forms a stark contrast.
 

“Everyone wants to grow old, but nobody wants to be old.”
(Gustav Knuth)


In the eyes of the young, growing old is frequently associated with infirmity and declining abilities. It is true that the state of your health objectively deteriorates over the years, and that older people experience increasingly negative life events. But this in no way means that everything is bad; quite the reverse!
A number of different scientific studies have demonstrated that people between the ages of approximately 65 and 80 are among the happiest and most contented. At first glance this is astonishing, so much so that the literature talks about the “well-being paradox”.

Life satisfaction forms a U-shaped curve

From adulthood, life satisfaction constantly decreases. In western culture, however, our happiness does not drop unendingly. We reach the nadir between the ages of 40 and 50, and from then on it starts to increase again. At the age of 70, there is a good chance that you will be happier than ever before. Only towards the end of life, when sensory and motor performance start to decline further, does life satisfaction begin to drop again.
Of course, this is an average, based on statistical trends drawn from extensive surveys. Life satisfaction can look quite different on a case-by-case basis. When looking at these trends, these different aspects should be considered. For example, we must remember that age groups, not generations, are what is actually being compared. It may well be that a 70-year-old today was quite simply born at a better time than a 40-year-old. From other studies, we also know that happier people live longer. By implication, this could mean that unhappy older people are missing from the statistics because they died younger.
New studies have taken these points into account, yet the U-shaped life satisfaction curve appears again and again. This effect has also been observed regardless of the state of health, income, number of children, marital status and education. For both men and women, contentment first drops, then rises again. From the age of 40-50, mental wellbeing only increases!

Even apes have a “mid-life crisis”

Why are we happiest in our earliest years and after retiring? The reasons for this have not been fully clarified, but there are various hypotheses. A frequently formulated rationale is that working life affects happiness. After all, we start to be less happy at the age when most people are working. We then become happier after reaching retirement age.
However, a study on apes shows that biological preconditions may also have an influence, in addition to the cultural aspects. Interestingly, a U-shaped curve for life satisfaction was also observed in chimpanzees and orang-utans. In the study, the health of a good 500 animals was assessed by trusted zoologists. The unhappiest animals were around the age of 30, which corresponds to a human age of 40-50.
Neither of these explanations sound very optimistic, as they are difficult to influence. The most plausible explanation of the U-shaped curve, however, links happiness in old age to psychological strategies. Elderly people use these strategies unconsciously, at least in part. And some of these perspectives and attitudes could be adopted by all generations to live their daily lives rather more contentedly.

Older people are expert at regulating emotions

We can control our emotions and thus influence whether, when, how intensively or for how long we feel them. As we get older, we seem to have increased experience of efficiently deploying strategies of this type. Older people frequently use anticipatory strategies, as they are called, very skilfully. That is why they are more successful in not having bad moods in the first place! Therefore situations that could arouse negative emotions are avoided or assessed differently. An example would be someone provisionally only taking part in an event if it matches their own opportunities and preferences. Additionally, older people are more consistent and more skilful at consciously bowing out. This way they retain more energy for activities that are really important to them.

A reason for the advanced emotion-regulating abilities of older people could be their high level of personal responsibility. This means the knowledge that you are solely responsible for your own health. This knowledge is an important prerequisite for being able to influence your emotions proactively.

A further reason lies in the perspective of the “life span”. People who subjectively anticipate that their life will not end for a long time are more likely to accept that activities may have a short-term negative effect on their emotional health. They invest more time in things that will hopefully pay off in the future. This includes, for example, acquiring knowledge, career planning or establishing new social relationships. By contrast, people who believe they have limited time before death value experiences that feel directly positive. For this reason, older people more frequently invest time in activities that bring them real joy. What is more, they concentrate on fewer relationships, but really good ones. They keep in touch with people when they experience the relationship as meaningful and emotionally significant. Important here is not the actual age but the feeling of “having time”, which determines whether we use these cognitive and motivational strategies, and what is important here is not the actual age but the feeling of “having time”, which determines whether we use these cognitive and motivational strategies.

Emotional regulation is presumably responsible for why older people feel happier on average. Handling emotions certainly explains part of the contentment within an age group! And maybe this knowledge will help you to approach your daily life with the serenity and contentment of an elderly person.
 

“I never worry about the future. It comes soon enough.”
(Albert Einstein)

 

References:
Blanchflower, D. G. & Oswald, A. J. (2008). Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle? Soc Sci Med. 66(8). S. 1733-49.
Carstensen, L. L. (2006). The influence of a sense of time on human development. Science. 312 (5782). S. 1913-5.
Gesundheitsförderung Schweiz (2020). Lebenskompetenzen und psychische Gesundheit im Alter.
Sanitas (2020). Health Forecast. Die Gesundheit der Zukunft. Sanitas.
Steptoe, A. A.,  Deaton & Stone, A. A. (2015). Subjective wellbeing, health, and ageing. The Lancet. 385 (9968). S. 640-648.
Swift, H. J., et al. (2014). Revisiting the Paradox of Well-being: The Importance of National Context. The Journals of Gerontology. Series B. 69 (6). S. 920-929.
Weiss, A., et al. (2012). Evidence for a midlife crisis in great apes consistent with the U-shape in human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 109 (49). S. 19949-19952.
Wunder, C., et al. (2013). Well-Being over the Life Span: Semiparametric Evidence from British and German Longitudinal Data. The Review of Economics and Statistics. 95(1). S. 154-167.