Happiness Across the Life Span: Not a Slippery Slope after all
Research shows that life satisfaction across the life span resembles a U-shape, with a pronounced midlife dip in our 40s and early 50s. (Illustrations: Nicole Xu for USC Dornsife Magazine.)

Happiness Across the Life Span: Not a Slippery Slope after all

Contrary to popular opinion, when it comes to well-being, our lives do not represent an inevitable decline from the sunny uplands of youth to the valley of death. Instead, the opposite is true — we can confidently look forward to old age as the happiest time of our lives. [12 ½ min read]
BySusan Bell

Things they do look awful c-c-cold,

I hope I die before I get old. 

More than 50 years have passed since The Who’s Pete Townshend penned these immortal lines on his 20th birthday, resulting in the band’s iconic ode to rebellious youth, “My Generation.” These days there is no hint that the rock star, now a spritely septuagenarian, is entertaining any regrets that his youthful wish didn’t come true.

But as a young man, Townshend certainly wasn’t alone in dreading old age, and while his suggested remedy for avoiding the unavoidable may have been extreme, he also wasn’t alone in wanting to dodge what we tend to believe will be the miseries of aging.

So it may come as something of a shock to many of us to learn that the research shows we’ve been dead wrong all this time — not only about growing old, but also about when we’ll experience the happiest days of our lives. No, they won’t happen during our schooldays, as the old adage dictates, or when we’re forging ahead in our careers, or even when we’re raising our children. It may seem counterintuitive, but study after study shows that the happiest days of our lives will occur in old age.

U-turn to happiness

In fact, if we were to plot a graph with a line representing our life satisfaction across the life span, it would not, as we might assume, show a steady decline into old age, nor would it hold fast from youth until we reach, say, our 70s, and then fall off a cliff. Instead, research shows it resembles a U-shape, with a pronounced midlife dip in our 40s and early 50s. 

“When we ask people, ‘Are you satisfied with life?’ we consistently find this U-shaped pattern,” says alumna Susan Charles, who earned her Ph.D. in psychology in 1997 and is now professor and chair of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine.

While this dip might sound like bad news for those hitting middle age, there’s a silver lining: As Charles explains, “After midlife, life satisfaction goes back up, until you see people who are about 65 looking as happy, as satisfied with life, as younger adults in their 20s.”

And that’s not all: A landmark longitudinal study across the adult life span — the first of its kind — by Charles and USC Dornsife Professor of Psychology Margaret Gatz showed that negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, stress and frustration, far from increasing as we get older, actually decrease steadily with age. Positive emotions, such as excitement, pride, calm and elation, remain stable across the life span. Only the very oldest group registered a very slight decline in positive emotions.

But despite all the heartening evidence that well-being improves as we age, we still tend to dread growing old, clinging obstinately to the belief that happiness declines as we get older.

So while 70-year-olds report higher current happiness than 30-year-olds, both expect that happiness declines with age. That is, at least when thinking about other people — both older and younger adults are optimistic about their own emotional futures but pessimistic about others. 

So, why are we all getting it so wrong?

“For a lot of people, when you say, ‘What does 80 look like?’ the first thing we think of is dementia and nursing homes,” says Charles. 

That’s a key part of the problem, according to USC Dornsife’s Norbert Schwarz, Provost Professor of Psychology and Marketing. Schwarz notes that when we are evaluating our lives, we only pay attention to a few aspects. So, when we imagine old age, we tend to focus on the negative — increasing  frailty, declining independence, the inevitable loss of loved ones, and then, eventually, our own death, whether sudden or following a protracted illness.

“Of course, none of this is very pleasant, and it leads us to expect that life would be quite miserable,” says Schwarz.

However, as he points out, our reasoning about aging is faulty. By omitting many negative aspects of life that we won’t have to deal with any longer when we are old, we’re failing to grasp the big picture. 

The Positives of Aging

So why do people grow happier as they age? Is it an absence of stress, or are they able to focus more on what brings them joy?

Schwarz says the answer is actually much simpler and is linked to activity. Research he conducted with USC Dornsife’s Arthur Stone, professor of psychology, economics and health policy and management and director of the USC Dornsife Center for Self-Report Science (CSS), shows that activity is a major determinant of how we feel moment to moment. 

“For instance, many people don’t have jobs they enjoy that much. When we retire, we have better days as we spend less time on activities that aren’t very enjoyable and cause high levels of stress. We also have more time to spend with others,” Schwarz notes. “All of that lifts our spirits.”

Who we spend time with is also key. Studies show that the elderly may be better at avoiding situations and people that make them feel bad; they have more control over how they spend their time and whom they spend it with.

It seems that as we age, our brains become increasingly wired to concentrate on the positive. A study by Charles, Mara Mather, professor of psychology at USC Dornsife and gerontology at USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and Laura Carstensen of Stanford University shows that older people pay more attention to positive stimuli, such as images of babies or athletes celebrating, whereas younger people pay more attention to the negative, such as images of a couple visiting a graveyard or of someone being threatened with a knife or gun. This also affects memory, with older people remembering the positive images more often than younger people, who are more likely to remember the negative.

“From what we can tell, older adults are trying to focus more on emotional goals and enhance their well-being, whereas younger adults are devoting resources to other things,” Mather said. 

Schwarz also debunks another common misconception about aging — that increasing awareness of mortality causes unhappiness.

“There are moments of sadness when your first friends are dying, but it’s not the case that people are all very unhappy when suddenly facing their own mortality,” he says.

“Emotional well-being looks pretty good as we age, sometimes even better than when we’re young.”

While acknowledging that age does bring inevitable loss, Charles agrees.

“People just assume that loss brings decreases in positive affect. So, it’s kind of amazing — kind of wonderful, actually — that with age we don’t see that,” Charles says. “Almost everything else you study in aging often doesn’t end well, but emotional well-being looks pretty good as we age, sometimes even better than when we’re young. 

Of course, happiness can look very different depending on the measures we use.

Psychologists use three methods to measure subjective well-being. The first, evaluative well-being, measures life satisfaction. The second, hedonic or experiential well-being, measures moment-to-moment mood. And the third, what the ancient Greeks termed eudaimonia — asks, “Is my life meaningful?” 

The three are different, but related, and interestingly, many people are willing to temporarily sacrifice the first and second to achieve the third. To illustrate this point, Stone cites the example of a student undergoing the brutal rigors of medical school. While her mood may be poor because she’s stressed and sleep-deprived, and her life satisfaction may be low because she isn’t pleased with her lack of ability to see friends and relatives, she may still find great meaning in her life because it’s getting her where she wants to be. 

“People may subject themselves to lower levels of certain kinds of well-being in order to achieve other things,” notes Stone, who, like Gatz, prefers to avoid the word “happiness” because of the ambiguity between evaluative well-being and mood. “Alternatively, a person might be happy-go-lucky, very good in terms of their satisfaction and mood, but their life may not be particularly meaningful, which on some larger existential basis may be important to them.”

A good life, Schwarz argues, probably lies in finding the right mix: accepting temporary misery or discomfort to achieve something meaningful, finding enough pleasant activities to feel good for a significant chunk of the day and accomplishing some things that make you feel satisfied when you step back and evaluate your life.

Pattern Recognition

Psychologists see different patterns emerging when they measure happiness in different ways.

When we look at life satisfaction in Western cultures, Schwarz notes, the family life cycle shows that people are very happy shortly before they get married. That settles back down to normal levels once they wed. Then comes the big dip in life satisfaction that we experience in our 40s and early 50s.  

Does this U-shaped dip correspond to the notorious so-called midlife crisis? Charles says there’s little evidence to support that, with only a meager 7 percent of people attributing a crisis to middle age. “It did happen,” she says, “but a lot less than you’d expect.” 

Instead, Schwarz suggests two other reasons for the midlife dip.

First, this is when people typically strive for success in their career, a period accompanied by higher demands and increased stress.

The second reason, he says, is parenthood. “People all say their kids are their greatest source of joy, except their life satisfaction gets much worse the minute the kids are born.

“When we do an analysis of how parents feel in everyday situations, then — with the exception of kid-focused activities, such as watching a movie together or playing games, which are usually a source of joy — almost every daily chore feels worse when their kids are present. For instance, grocery shopping isn’t much fun, but going shopping with your toddler is hell. Then the kids go to school and it gets a little bit better, and then they’re out of the house and daily life improves.”

This, Schwarz notes, is another reason the elderly are happier — their kids have flown the nest and on a moment-to-moment basis, that’s a positive thing.

Looking at Emotion

In a landmark 2010 study Stone published with Nobel laureate and USC Dornsife Presidential Professor of Economics Sir Angus Deaton, the researchers looked at evaluative and experiential well-being in people ranging from 20 to 80 years old, using data from 400,000 participants gathered by the Gallup Organization.

“What we found was that in our 20s, we’re at a moderate level of life satisfaction, then it drops down to the lowest levels in our early 50s, and then it starts shooting up through age 80,” Stone says. “So, it’s not exactly a U, but a slanted backwards J.” 

A different pattern emerged when Stone and his team looked at specific emotions. Reports of anger, frustration, stress and feelings of distress were highest for younger adults and gradually lessened with age, resulting in a linear decline across the life span rather than the U-shaped pattern associated with life satisfaction. 

The researchers also asked respondents about their stress levels. The results showed that about half of people from age 20 to their late 40s experienced considerable stress. From there, stress levels started dropping off dramatically, almost in a straight line, to age 70, when only about 17 percent reported experiencing significant stress.

Stone noted the paradox here, which begs the question, “As health deteriorates with age, what’s going on to make people feel less stressed and more satisfied with their lives as they grow older?”

Stone and Deaton struggled to find statistically based answers.

“We took variables that we thought might explain the U-shape and drop in stress, and it turns out we couldn’t explain it,” Stone said. “Things we thought would make a difference, didn’t. How much money you made didn’t make a difference, whether or not you’re married, whether you had kids living at home. So, this has been a puzzle.”

Seeking answers, Stone has now undertaken a new research study with Joan Broderick, a senior behavioral scientist at the USC Dornsife’s Center for Economic and Social Research and associate director of CSS. The study will question 3,500 participants nationwide about life satisfaction and stress, but adds a dozen variables that haven’t been explored thoroughly before, such as social network size and wisdom. 

“Older adults … know how to regulate their emotions by controlling their environments and minimizing their exposure to things that will upset them.”

Our Shifting Priorities

One possible solution may lie in our perception of how much time we have left to live. Both Stone and Charles point to research by Stanford’s Carstensen that looks at how our growing realization that time is running out shifts our priorities as we age. While younger people concentrate more on acquiring the knowledge and skills that will help them succeed in their careers, older people focus more on emotional goals that make them feel good. 

Here, the elderly have an advantage. Free from the worries about their future that plague the young, they don’t have to strive to be successful in their career or anguish over whether they’ll find a partner, whether they’ll have children. That’s been decided long ago, and they can afford to live in the moment and focus on emotion.

“Older people think, ‘Let’s make the most of the time we have, let’s optimize our emotional experience,’” Charles says. “They just don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.

“Older adults perceive time left in life as growing more precious. They also have experience from time lived, so they know how to regulate their emotions by controlling their environments and minimizing their exposure to things that will upset them.”

So, for example, we know from many studies that older adults will get out of a conversation if it becomes heated or unpleasant. Unlike younger adults, who are more likely to dig in, older adults are more likely to change the subject.

The result is that our older selves are able to handle with equanimity experiences that our younger selves would have found deeply upsetting.

“It’s a case of ‘been there, done that,’” Gatz says. “It’s maturity, and that’s a good thing.”

The fact that 30-year-olds aren’t as happy as 70-year-olds isn’t widely accepted, Schwarz says, largely because people struggle to accept it as true. He compares how we view aging with the way we think about health or disability. 

We believe that if we’re sick or in a wheelchair, life would be miserable, and yet study after study shows that is not the case. What determines our happiness, Schwarz says, is what we pay attention to and what we do.

“It’s important to realize that no matter what your illness is, you’re not a patient 24 hours a day. Much of your day is still pleasant. The sun still shines, you spend time with friends, food still tastes good. All of these things are just as enjoyable as before,” he says.

And what of Pete Townshend? Schwarz, when asked what he would say if he could go back in time to the moment when the budding rock star committed to paper his desire to die before he reached old age, replied, “Well, I’d tell him, ‘You’d miss one of the best parts of your life!”

Read more stories from USC Dornsife Magazine’s Fall 2019/Winter 2020 issue >>