New Cure for the Blues: Get Old

Time Magazine

By Jeffrey Kluger | Thursday, Jun. 15, 2006

Dreading getting old? Think it'll be a time of melancholy and solitude and existential terror? Guess what: Odds are you'll be happier in your senior years than at any other point in your life. And the odds are equally good that you were a whole lot less happy when you were younger than you think you were.

Those counterintuitive conclusions are the findings of a new study published in the improbably named Journal of Happiness Studies, reporting on work carried out the University of Michigan Medical School. Researchers assembled a sample group of 540 adults, all of whom were either between 21 and 40 or over 60. The subjects responded to a series of questions asking them to rate on a scale of one to 10 their own happiness, how happy they thought they'd be when they were old (or, for the over-60 group, remembered being when they were young) and how they think they compared to other people in their age group.

Surprisingly, the folks in the older group scored significantly higher in the current happiness category than the younger group. Despite this, the older people believed they'd been happier when they were young--and the younger group guessed most people would be less happy when they were old. Almost all of the individuals concluded that the rules didn't entirely apply to them, believing that they were generally happier than their contemporaries and would remain that way when they were older—a small bit of vanity that the data didn't support either.

What it means: The researchers were not terribly surprised that most people consider themselves above average in happiness. This is a bias that turns up repeatedly in such areas as intelligence and driving ability. Outside of Lake Wobegon, of course, it's mathematically impossible for everyone to be above average, since that would simply set the statistical midline higher.

The rest of the findings were more surprising, though. The researchers believe that the reason for greater late-life contentment is not necessarily improved circumstances. Old folks, after all, are often struggling with illness, widowhood or getting by on a pension or a fixed income. Rather, a lifetime of experiences has simply taught them to manage problems with greater aplomb—likely more than they probably expected they'd acquire.

The investigators are returning for closer studies of the people in the 40 to 60 age group, but already see important implications for their work. Learn to see your late years as more than just the departure lounge to the hereafter and you're more likely to save money and maintain your health insurance, as well as avoiding life-shortening habits like smoking or poor diet.