Is getting older the key to happiness?

Amanda Riley-Jones

Do you ever wonder if your happiest days are behind you? Think again. A growing body of research has discovered something very unexpected and rather wonderful...

The happiness curve

Our happiness levels tend to follow a U-shaped curve as we move through life, according to research by Professor Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick. Multiple studies report that people feel happy when they are young—this dips in their 20s and 30s, hits the lowest point in the mid-40s, then rises consistently as people move into older life. 

“It’s taken me 20 years to discover this U-shaped curve,” says Professor Oswald, who works at the interface between behavioural science and economics. “In the early days, I didn’t expect these results—because physical health deteriorates through life, one would expect emotional well-being to drop also.

“But we’ve studied over five million people and found the same pattern all over the world. I think more or less everyone now accepts that older people are happier (with the exception of the last five years when illness strikes and happiness tends to fall off). This could be classified as a truly fundamental discovery about humans.”

Happiness curve

A huge Gallop poll in the US found the same decreasing happiness from 18–50, followed by a progressive  bounce back after 50. (Remarkably, octogenarians were found to be the happiest of all.) And a Eurostat survey last year reported a clear “retirement effect”, with 65- to 74-year-olds across the UK, Holland, Switzerland and Sweden all feeling happier than their 16- to 25-year-old counterparts.

That might not have surprised the late, great professor of neurology Oliver Sacks. He spoke of how his father experienced being in his 80s as one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. Sacks described how both he and his father experienced “an enlargement of mental life and perspective”, and a sense of history not possible earlier in life.

He thought of old age as a time of leisure and freedom, “freed from the urgencies of earlier days”.  

 

What’s going on? 

“The shape of the curve makes sense. The drop in happiness in the 30s and 40s coincides—for most people—with the pressures of work, having a mortgage and raising young kids,” says Vanessa King, lead positive psychologist for the not-for-profit organisation Action for Happiness, which runs courses and events to build psychological well-being.

“From our teens to midlife, we’re  often comparing ourselves to others, thinking about where we are versus where we want to be. When we’re older, we become less worried about what others think,” she explains.

Steve Dobson, a 54-year-old NHS administrator from Kent, says, “I was a self-conscious youngster and feel much happier after turning 50. My confidence has increased as a result of my life experience and now I don’t care what people think of me. For the last four years, I’ve been getting up on stage to do a cabaret act in London and Manchester.

“I kept failing my driving test because of nerves, but I tried again when I was 52 and passed. I had more of a ‘Well, I’ve been here before’ attitude. You cope better with setbacks when you’re older.”

“Older people worry less about the small things and have a greater sense of what really matters,” continues Vanessa. “As we age, we tend to become more appreciative
of the simple things in life and more aware of what makes us happy. We know ourselves better.” 

Professor Oswald thinks there could be a different explanation for the curve. “The standard theory used to be that we set off with high aspirations but by midlife realise how tough they are to achieve. We adjust our expectations, come to terms with our weaknesses and then become more sanguine. But the apes study has shaken up social scientists’ theories on this.”

Researchers familiar with individual apes in zoos, research centres and a sanctuary made a fascinating observation: orangutans and chimpanzees also have a midlife crisis. Could it be that the origins of our U-shaped happiness lie partly in the biology we share with our closest cousins? 

“My instinct is that we need to find a theory that fits both humans and apes,” Professor Oswald continues. “It has raised the possibility that we’re looking for a physiological or hormonal explanation. Or perhaps the traditional human theory might work. Apes have a social structure like us. We are right up against the edge of what’s known. Now we need to get to the bottom of it.”

 

How to boost your well-being

The root of all happiness

Small changes can lead to a big difference in how we feel. “Try to go all day without complaining or moaning—even about the weather,” says Professor Pine. “Compliment, praise and point out the good stuff. Noticing the good things in life helps ward off low mood. And cheerful people are nicer to be around!”

Shaking up your routine is rejuvenating and puts you back in charge of your life. “Whether it’s trying a different supermarket or visiting another country, exploring new territory will give your brain a jolt of freshness,” she adds.

Bridget Alexander, 64, a retired ad sales director from Suffolk, says, “I’m happier in my 60s than I was in my 50s. I’ve made the transition from London to a beautiful market town, found a new role and established myself in the local community. I’ve joined three choirs and found huge fulfilment in using my sales skills to fundraise for local charities. Getting out to meet new friends and achieve something is really important at this stage of life.”

Engaging yourself is a key element in staying happy. “Whether it’s learning a function on your mobile or a few foreign phrases for your holiday, challenging your brain keeps you alert and may even slow the ageing process,” says Professor Pine.

Carol Clapshaw, 65, a retired office manager from London, says, “Life is much more fun now I’m in my mid-60s. I retired two years ago and I’m free to do whatever I feel like doing. Financially I’m comfortable, although not loaded, and my philosophy in life is to laugh every day. My motto is: keep smiling and the world smiles back.”

Vanessa King is passionate about the need to work at being happy. “People who are happiest engage in life, rather than letting it pass by,” she says. “It’s not about watching TV all week and expecting happiness to come to us. We have to put attention, effort and energy into nurturing it.” She says research—which is examined in detail in her book 10 Keys to Happier Living—shows there are areas where taking action makes us happy:  

GIVING: Do things for others.
RELATING: Connect with people.
EXERCISING: Take care of your body.
APPRECIATING: Notice the world around you.
TRYING OUT: Keep trying new things.

DIRECTION: Have goals to look forward to.
RESILIENCE: Find ways to bounce back from problems.
EMOTION: Take a positive approach.
ACCEPTANCE: Be comfortable with who you are.
MEANING: Be part of something bigger than yourself.

 

The key to happiness

Surprisingly, the first “key” is about other people’s happiness. “Giving to others can be a powerful way to increase their happiness—and ours. We’re social creatures and need a sense of purpose and connection to others. Older people who volunteer are both happier and healthier.”

Truska Gorrell, 72, a retired teacher from Canada, says, “I was a high-school teacher in my early days and have come full circle in retirement. I help two of my grandkids with their homework and volunteer with young struggling students at the local high school. Maybe that is part of the joy of getting older...being able to use the skills developed in the first half of life, to help people in the second half. There’s peace to be found in later life.”

Being part of and contributing to something bigger than ourselves adds meaning to everyone’s lives, whatever age—whether it’s being a grandparent, joining a club or going to a place of worship. Especially after retirement, it’s crucial to find a sense of purpose. 

Thankfully we become more resilient with age and a major part of this is the way that older people think. “It’s important to limit any damaging thought patterns. For instance, if health problems have taken their toll, focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t do,” advises Vanessa.

Humans are naturally wired to look for negatives and risk, but we can boost our happiness by taking time to appreciate the world around us. “Write down three good things that have happened each day. It might be something as simple as seeing a robin in the garden. This will train you to look for the positives and eventually become automatic. We can still develop our brains as we get older,” she explains.  

Some scientists have even found that a sense of well-being and purpose increases our life expectancy. “Research has shown that happiness is associated with better physical health and a stronger immune system,” confirms Vanessa. 

“If we’re happy, while it’s no guarantee, we’re likely to live longer.”

 

Illustrations: David Humphries