People get happier with age, new research finds.
Surprisingly, anxiety and depression peak in people’s 20s and 30s, when we are generally thought to be in our prime.
Professor Dilip Jeste, a senior author of the study, talking about older people, said:
“Their improved sense of psychological well-being was linear and substantial.
Participants reported that they felt better about themselves and their lives year upon year, decade after decade.”
Youth adulthood, though, was not the paradise that is often assumed, Professor Dilip Jeste said:
“This ‘fountain of youth’ period is associated with far worse levels of psychological well-being than any other period of adulthood.”
The study’s conclusions come from a survey of 1,546 randomly selected adults in San Diego County.
Conventionally, scientists have assumed that people’s mental health follows their declining physical and cognitive function.
This was certainly not the case in the new research.
Previous findings on this have been mixed, however, Professor Jeste said:
“Some investigators have reported a U-shaped curve of well-being across the lifespan, with declines from early adulthood to middle age followed by an improvement in later adulthood.
The nadir of mental health in this model occurs during middle age, roughly 45 to 55. However, we did not find such a mid-life dip in well-being.”
People are generally found to have better mental health as they get older — but this hasn’t previously been linked to happiness.
Cognitive decline, while noticeable, clearly does not ruin the enjoyment of life for many, Professor Jeste said:
“Some cognitive decline over time is inevitable, but its effect is clearly not uniform and in many people, not clinically significant — at least in terms of impacting their sense of well-being and enjoyment of life.”
There are a variety of reasons why happiness comes with age.
It could be that older people:
- tend not to ‘sweat the small stuff’,
- are more wise,
- regulate their emotions more effectively,
- retain fewer negative emotions and memories,
- and make better social decisions.
Dr Michael L. Thomas, the study’s first author, warned of its limitations:
“…like many other investigations of this type, it was a cross-sectional study, and thus a snapshot of data.
Also, there may have been a survivor bias — i.e., less healthy adults do not survive into old age.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (Thomas et al., 2016).