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Features : Editorial Last Updated: Apr 5, 2013 - 11:18:18 AM

Who's happier, older people or younger people?
By Steve Ferber
Apr 5, 2013 - 11:17:27 AM

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The two research findings that I’m about to share may, at first, appear contradictory. But we shall explain.  
• Research finding #1: older people are happier than they’ve ever been (indeed, people across all generations become happier as they age); and
• Research finding #2: younger people, on an absolute level, are happier than their older counterparts.
How can this be?  The reason, of course, is that how happy you are (the term of art is “psychological well-being”) has more to do with when you were born, not how old you are.
Researchers from NIH, the National Institute on Aging, and Florida State University analyzed thousands of records, on people born from 1885 to the present, and arrived at this significant conclusion: a person’s overall well-being is related to what generation they grew up in.  
Lindsay Abrams, writing for The Atlantic, explains: “People born at the turn of the 20th century, between 1885 and 1925, started out lowest on the well-being scale. Each successive generation, stretching across almost a century to people born in 1980, had a slightly more positive outlook.” Added Abrams: “This also means that while older adults appear, as a whole, to be the least happy generation, right now they’re happier than they’ve ever been.”
“Psychological well-being,” as defined by researchers, is an overall sense of life satisfaction, one that often translates into life success (i.e., relationships, career, financial). Explained the researchers: “Life satisfaction increased over the participants’ lifetimes. This trend remained even after factors like health, medication, sex, ethnicity, and education were taken into account.”  
Said lead researcher Angelina Sutin, as quoted recently in Time magazine: “Once we accounted for the fact that people grew up in different eras, it turns out, on average, people maintain or increase their sense of well-being as they get older.”
What this new research suggests is that previous findings were flawed when they concluded that age was the reason the elderly have a lower sense of well-being.  Apparently, it has more to do with life experiences, and generational challenges, such as the Great Depression and economic trauma. The Time magazine article pointed out: “People born in 1940, for example, scored nearly three times higher on measures of well-being related to the time period immediately preceding the survey (responses to items like ‘I enjoyed life’ and ‘I was happy’), compared to those born in 1900.”
In the same Time article, Sutin offered the following observation: “We assume that all of that loss would make older adults unhappy. It’s harder to see the benefits of aging: feelings of pride for children and grandchildren, a meaningful career, more confidence, wisdom. There are a lot of reasons to be happy in older adulthood, but they may not be as visible as the losses.” When they are, however, it turns out that happiness is one of the benefits that come with age.
Co-authors on this research include Antonio Terracciano, also of Florida State University College of Medicine and a guest researcher at the NIA; Yuri Milaneschi of the National Institute on Aging and VU University Medical Center; and Yang An, Luigi Ferrucci and Alan B. Zonderman of the National Institute on Aging, NIH.
Steve Ferber is author of “21 Rules to Live By.”
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