Contrary to what many of my students are being told, these are probably not the best years of their lives – or at least, not the happiest. In fact, the people who are telling them this – parents and grandparents, one would suspect – are probably much happier now than they were when they were younger. The happiest age may in fact be in the 50s and 60s.
To determine that we do get happier as we get older, researchers used a technique called “experience sampling” that recruited almost 200 volunteers ranging in age from newly minted legal adults (18 year olds) to incipient centenarians (94 years old). Everyone in the study wore an electronic pager (the first wave of the study was in 1993-1995, before the cell phone revolution took off; even the most recent wave, 2004-2005, predates the iPhone) that went off 5 times a day, between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., every day for a week. When the pager buzzed, the volunteers were reminded to run through a checklist of emotions and rate how strongly they were feeling each one, in that moment. These included both positive (such as happy, excited, proud, interested, amused) and negative (angry, sad, afraid, frustrated, bored) emotions.
No doubt we would all like our positive emotions to outweigh our negative ones, and that’s the metric of happiness used here: how often volunteers endorsed positive emotions, minus how often they endorsed negative emotions. And by that metric, the golden years of our lives will truly be in our 60s. Although all ages on average reported more positive than negative emotions, the extent to which positive emotions surpassed the negative ones grew until well into midlife, hit a peak at about 64 years old, and then started to decline. Even declining, though, old age is happier than youth; people in their 90s were about as happy as people in their mid-30s, making the 20s the least positive decade of life.
This increase in happiness did not apply to everyone; there were individuals who were relatively unhappy in mid-life and late-life (seen in the image as small grey dots, which represent individuals). It’s impossible to say whether this is a general state of being for those individuals, or if they just happened to receive the pager during the worst week of their year. The variations in individual experience couldn’t be predicted by health, intelligence, or personality (all of which were assessed when the volunteers agreed to participate in the study), suggesting that the general increase in happiness as we age will hold true regardless of how healthy you are or what your personality is. (Although being healthier and scoring high on a personality trait called “openness to experience” did lead to people being happier at every age of the lifespan).
Sadly, although experience sampling can tell us how emotions change, it doesn’t tell us why; there’s a limit to what we can ask people to tell us about themselves in a single week, and people can be quite bad at explaining what it is that leads them to feel what they feel at any given moment. But we can turn to other studies to fill in some gaps and speculate about what’s going on.
So, why do people seem to have that abundance of positive emotions as they get older? The positive and negative emotions are reported to be just as intense: all ages are equally likely to declare the strength of any emotion a 5 out of 7. What may change is a deliberate choice: younger adults might get caught in the negative emotions, dwelling on them; evolutionarily speaking, this is an important strategy for learning how to avoid the events that brought about the negative emotions in the first place. Older adults, on the other hand, may make a conscious choice to turn away from the negative emotions.
We know from a different study that older adults (65 to 83 years old) make a deliberate effort to turn away from a negative emotional picture: when they are just shown the negative picture and the neutral one side by side, they will spend only about 53% of the time looking at the negative picture, very close to even; when they are distracted by having to count a tone that’s playing while the pictures are on the screen, however, time spent looking at the negative picture increases to 57%. This suggests a deliberate effort to regulate negative emotions and direct attention elsewhere, which can’t be accomplished when attention is divided – or perhaps as those self-control faculties decline with old age, as people get further away from that peak at 64 years.
Although younger adults are more inclined to view the negative pictures (63% of their time, even without any distraction) there’s nothing that says we young’uns couldn’t choose to adopt the same deliberate strategy that the older adults seem to. That, of course, is where mindfulness comes in. It may not be that the older adults are more mindful of their emotions, precisely – that will take a study measuring mindfulness traits at all ages to determine – but they could be adopting one of the tenets of mindfulness by choosing to accept a negative emotion happened, and to move on, allowing them to be more positive when they are paged the next time. If we can just adopt that strategy at an earlier age, and get more practice at doing it, perhaps we can bring that peak even earlier and make it a plateau for an overall happy life at any age.
Carstensen, L., Turan, B., Scheibe, S., Ram, N., Ersner-Hershfield, H., Samanez-Larkin, G., Brooks, K., & Nesselroade, J. (2011). Emotional experience improves with age: Evidence based on over 10 years of experience sampling. Psychology and Aging, 26 (1), 21-33 DOI: 10.1037/a0021285