Harvard Women's Health Watch

In the journals: More happiness, less worry after age 50, study finds

With age, we inevitably develop more wrinkles, aches and pains, and more problems of all kinds with our bodies. But these unwelcome changes don't seem to get us down. People over age 50 are apparently happier and less stressed: we worry less and feel increasingly better about our lives, even into old age. These are the findings of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (online, May 17, 2010) that investigated age-related changes in two different aspects of well-being: overall satisfaction with life (global well-being) and day-to-day experiences of certain emotions (hedonic well-being). Though both are important, the authors say they're rarely studied together.

In the report, titled "A Snapshot of the Age Distribution of Psychological Well-being in the United States," researchers at Stony Brook University and Princeton University analyzed data from a 2008 Gallup telephone survey of 340,847 Americans, ages 18 to 85. The survey gathered information about age, sex, marital status, personal finances, health, and other topics. To assess global well-being, it asked respondents where they would place themselves on an imaginary 10-step ladder with "best possible life" at the top and "worst possible life" at the bottom. For hedonic well-being, they were asked whether they had experienced any of the following emotions during a large part of the previous day: stress, worry, anger, sadness, enjoyment, and happiness.

When correlated with age, the data for overall satisfaction with life yielded a U-shaped pattern. People who were around age 20 felt relatively good about their situations; those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s gave increasingly less positive assessments. But after age 50, there was a shift, with overall well-being trending upward again (see the graphic). Current feelings, or hedonic well-being, showed patterns that differed depending on the particular emotion. Stress and anger declined steadily from the youngest group through the oldest respondents, but worry didn't begin to drop off until around age 50. Sadness rose to a modest peak among those around age 50, then fell back and leveled off. Enjoyment and happiness decreased gradually until age 50, then rose until about age 70, and leveled off or declined slightly. In both hedonic and global well-being, the age-related trends were similar for women and men — although women reported more stress, worry, and sadness at all ages. These findings held up even after the researchers took into account other factors associated with age, including marital and employment status and whether there were children at home.

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