Dad at 83--Happy? You bet.

“What a drag it is getting old. . . .”  So sang the Rolling Stones in “Mother’s Little Helper,” their 1966 ode to prescription drug abuse.  I wonder what their take on aging is now that they are in their late 60s?

I recently ran across a description of a study on happiness and aging that suggests that, far from being a drag, getting old is a pretty good thing.  The study analyzed data from a 2008 Gallup survey of adults from 18 to 85 years of age.  Survey participants were asked to rate life satisfaction on a 10-point scale.  They were also asked which of 6 feelings (enjoyment, happiness, stress, worry, anger, and sadness) they had experienced the previous day.  The idea behind the latter measure is that reporting on one day’s emotions is a better measure of emotional well-being than is a global rating of satisfaction since it is less susceptible to biases.

Scores on the measure of life satisfaction declined from age 18 to age 50, at which point they start increasing, so that 85-year-old participants report being more satisfied with their lives than do 18-year olds.  Findings for reports of the previous day’s emotions were varied.  A similar trajectory was found for enjoyment and happiness: they both decreased gradually until age 50 but then rose until age 75.  There was a slight decrease from 75 to 85.  Stress declined progressively starting at age 22, while anger declined beginning at 18.  Worry remained fairly steady from 18 to 50, but then showed a marked decline.   Sadness increased to a peak at age 50, then declined to age 73 but rose again to age 85.  Overall, then, there were more positive and fewer negative emotions in older survey participants than younger ones, with sadness being the only negative emotion experienced at similar levels in younger and older participants.  

 Since the survey design was cross-sectional, differences may in part be due to cohort effects and can’t be used to predict the path that now-young individuals will follow in their self-evaluations and emotional experiences throughout the course of adulthood.  Nevertheless, the results do fit fairly well with my experience and with what I’ve observed in others.  There aren’t nearly as many angry seniors as there are angry young adults.  I frankly don’t recall experiencing a lot of stress in my early 20s, but I sure see lots of it in my students who are that age.  The stress of getting adulthood going probably exceeds by a considerable margin the stresses of winding down a career and figuring out what to do in retirement.  As for worry, I probably worried more from the time my first child was born until the time my youngest child graduated from college—that took me from age 28 to age 53—than I did either before or after.  I don’t know why sadness would increase to age 50 and then decline.  Personally, I never had much sadness either before or after that age.  I suspect that sadness increases again late in life because of the increased likelihood of deteriorating health, disability, and death of one’s mate. 

 Aging is something that few of us look forward to.  According to this study, though, old age is a destination that looks worse from a distance than it does when we arrive.  When older, we may have more difficulty remembering names, reading the fine print, and driving at night, but it seems we’ll be enjoying life rather than worrying about what we can no longer do.  As Robert Browning invited us, “Grow old with me!  The best is yet to be.”