Getting Older & Getting Happier

Happiness scores increased with age but were lower in folks that grew up in hard times

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) According to recent research, people may get happier as they age. But that sense of well-being may be tied to how tough life was while growing up. A good economy may influence later happiness.

A recent study surveyed a large group of people several times over the course of many years about their sense of well-being.

Researchers found that people’s sense of well-being increased with age. They also found that people's sense of well-being had a lot to do with the state of the economy when they were growing up.

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Angelina R. Sutin, PhD, a post-doctoral research fellow in the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, led a team of colleagues to investigate links between happiness and age.

“Psychological well-being is associated with what most people typically strive for in life. People with higher levels of well-being, for example, tend to have more successful careers, longer lasting and more satisfying relationships and better physical health,” the authors said.

For the study, 5,271 people from ongoing studies were surveyed from 1971 to 2010 about their sense of well-being. Participants were born anywhere between 1885 and 1980 and many of them provided survey data as many as 19 different times over the course of 30 years.

Well-being measures included questions about depressive symptoms, positive or negative emotions and any physical symptoms of emotional trouble. Researchers grouped people together based on the decade in which they were born and adjusted survey answers for age, ethnicity, gender and educational factors.

At first, researchers found that people rated their feeling of well-being lower as they aged. But, after adjusting for the time period in which they were born, researchers found that well-being actually increased as people aged.

That is to say, a lower sense of well-being was linked to growing up in tough economic times compared to people with a higher sense of well-being who grew up in times of prosperity. For example, people who grew up during the Great Depression showed a lower sense of well-being compared to people who grew up in the 1960s, when the US economy was booming.

Even people who were able to get a college or graduate education, despite having grown up in poverty, still showed a lower sense of well-being overall.

“As young adults today enter a stagnant workforce, the challenges of high unemployment may have implications for their well-being that long outlast the period of joblessness. Economic turmoil may impede psychological, as well as financial, growth even decades after times get better,” the authors concluded.

This study was published in February in Psychological Science. The Intramural Research Program of the National Institute on Aging and the National Institutes of Health provided funding for this project. No conflicts of interest were declared.

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Review Date: 
February 17, 2013
Last Updated:
February 19, 2013