The image of a “grumpy old man” (or “grumpy old woman”) is pervasive in movies, TV shows and other media. Perhaps it’s because we assume that as we grow older, our lives will be filled with aches and pains, sickness and depression. But it turns out that this age-old stereotype isn’t usually true.
Game-changing finding: In a 2016 study published in Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, researchers found that happiness increases with age. While those in their 50s, 60s and beyond reported more cognitive impairment and physical ailments, they were happier, more satisfied, less depressed and anxious and experienced lower levels of perceived stress than younger adults.
How could this be? While the study did not determine exactly why older people tend to be happier, greater experience and wisdom most likely contribute to one’s superior mental health in later life. Plus, as we transition from building careers and raising families to having more personal time, we’re under less daily pressure and have more time to engage in meaningful activities that make us happy.
Our brains help out as well. The amygdala, an almond-shaped section of the brain that controls our emotional responses to stress, has been shown in brain scans to be less active in older people than in younger individuals when both are presented with upsetting images. This could be another reason why seniors deal with negative events more calmly and positively.
Could You Be Happier?
It’s worth noting that some people who have experienced tragedy and misfortunes may have less capacity for happiness than others. But for almost everyone, there are ways to improve the way you feel about yourself and your life—no matter what your age or circumstances.
Strategies to boost your mood, happiness and satisfaction with life…
Happiness booster #1: Foster the right kind of connections. More than fame, career success, money, IQ or genes, close connections are what promote happiness throughout life, according to a 75-year study from Harvard. In fact, study participants with the most satisfying relationships at age 50 were found to be the healthiest at age 80.
What to do: Make it a priority to spend time with friends, family and colleagues whose company you enjoy. And don’t assume that just because you’re married and/or have children you’re automatically covered when it comes to close connections. You need to regularly assess whether your relationships are having a positive impact on your psychological well-being. If not, do something about it.
Also: If you are married or in some other type of romantic relationship, you need to make time for each other to fan the flames of love. Travel, have sex and/or take up a new hobby together. Remember birthdays and anniversaries. Don’t take each other for granted!
Happiness booster #2: Fake it ’til you make it. Whether you feel like it or not, putting on a happy face can actually lift your spirits.
Evidence: In a 2012 study, researchers at University of Kansas found that those who smiled while performing stressful tasks had lower heart rates and self-reported lower stress levels afterward.
What to do: When you are in social situations, practice smiling…even when you don’t feel like it. Flexing the facial muscles that form a smile tells the brain you are happy. And conveying a positive demeanor attracts others to you, which boosts your mood.
Happiness booster #3: Show up on a regular basis. This could be at your job…or if you are retired, some other activity or hobby that you enjoy and do regularly. The sense of accomplishment from a job well done improves mood and life satisfaction.
What to do: If you have a fulfilling job, activity or hobby, stick with it. If you are in a job that causes you anxiety—or creates a toxic environment—it may be too difficult to derive pleasure from it no matter how positive you try to be. If so, request a transfer to a different department, look for a new job or change your expectations so that you are less affected by the negativity.
If you are retired, cultivate an existing interest by joining a club or starting a hobby. For example, if you enjoy bird-watching, join a bird-watching group that meets regularly for outings.
Happiness booster #4: Be grateful. It may sound trite, but it’s true—people who are grateful for what they have lead healthier and more contented lives.
What to do: Even if this strikes you as a little hokey, make a list of what you are grateful for. Doing this makes you appreciate what you have, instead of worrying about what you don’t have. Then take a few minutes each day to review/update the list at the same time every day. Do it first thing in the morning…on your commute to work…while brushing your teeth…or before you turn out your light at night. After a few weeks, ask yourself if you’re feeling any happier. Chances are, the answer will be yes!
How Happy Are You?
While there are no measures of happiness that apply to everyone, some basic questions can give you an idea. Using the rating scale below, indicate how much you agree with each statement. Total the numbers to get your results.
- In most ways, my life is close to my ideal ____
- The conditions of my life are excellent ____
- I am satisfied with my life ____
- So far, I have gotten the important things I want in life ____
- If I could live my life over, I would change nothing ____
7: Strongly agree
5: Slightly agree
4: Neither agree nor disagree
3: Slightly disagree
1: Strongly disagree
The higher the score, the greater your life satisfaction…
31-35 = Extremely satisfied
26-30 = Satisfied
21-25 = Slightly satisfied
20 = Neutral
15-19 = Slightly dissatisfied
10-14 = Dissatisfied
5-9 = Extremely dissatisfied
Credit: The Satisfaction With Life Scale was created by Ed Diener, Robert A. Emmons, Randy J. Larsen and Sharon Griffin.