Posted by: drdata921 | November 23, 2013

Does Greater Happiness Come With Age

“Happiness depends, as nature shows, less on exterior things than most suppose.”

William Cowper – English Poet

“Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals. Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul.”

Samuel Ullman – American Businessman, Poet, & Humanitarian

“Every age has its happiness and troubles”

Jeanne Calment – French supercentenarian (Lived to the age of 122)


Here is a question for you. What time of life brings the greatest happiness? One could argue that time should be the years following retirement. Think back on your life. When were you the happiest.

When you are in your 20’s, you are just starting out. You are struggling financially and are trying to establish yourself in the working world. As you move into your 30’s, careers are underway, but many people also have the responsibilities of marriage, children, mortgages and the like. Your life is consumed by family with the endless soccer games, t-ball, basketball, little league and school activities including homework. It is all about family without a lot of downtime for yourself. Add on top of that continuous worries about how you are going to fund college and a retirement. The positive part of these early family years is that your kids actually look-up to you and want to spend time.

Then as you enter your 40’s, your kids are probably teenagers who want the car keys, but not you. Who are they hanging with? Are they doing drugs or alcohol? Do you fear that call in the middle of the night that you little cherub has been in a serious accident or has been picked up by the police (all happened to us). This is another period of high stress. Again, college is approaching and you feel unprepared because your kid(s) will be moving on with their life without you and the impending tuition expenses are daunting.

But, then you enter your 60’s. Everyone is worried about whether they have saved enough for retirement. However, here is the realization that I came to. If I got laid off from my job, I would have a safety net. It might not be ideal or happen as I planned, but this is an age when you are somewhat protected. File for Social Security and you have a monthly income. If you have a pension, even more. If you have been diligent about saving a layoff could be a god sent because you can move on to the next phase without guilt, regret, or large financial issues.

Retirement is a time of life when you can explore. You are at a time in life when you stop accumulating wealth and start enjoying what you have. You don’t need to continue competing with the Jone’s. What people think about you is irrelevant, because it is a time to start looking inward, not comparing yourself to external standards. It should be the perfect time.


For those of you who have been following this blog for awhile, you know that I am very data bound and analytical. So, what does the research say about happiness and age? Well, a number of economists gathered data from the “America’s General Social Survey”, the European Eurobarometer, and Gallup. They looked at two kinds of happiness. The first was focused on general feelings of wellbeing. For example, “thinking about your life as a whole, how do you feel?” The other was focused on emotional wellbeing, feelings of stress, or contentment. For example: “Yesterday did you feel happy or contented or angry or anxious.

The results were a bit surprising. Happiness seemed to follow a U-curve with people reporting being happiest in their twenties and after their 50’s. The unhappiest time of life was for people in their 40’s and 50’s.

My hypothesis for why people in their 20’s are happiest is this is a time when they are learning to be an adult and are experiencing greater freedom. It is also a time for many before all of the heavy responsibilities hit. This was the happiest time in my life. I was making enough money to get by, but my finances were not stressed. I was in graduate school having the time of my life, intellectually and socially. I didn’t want to see it end – but, like all things it did as I began my career. It was never the same afterwards.

What about older people? There are a number of hypotheses for why this time of life is happier, but the ones that made the most sense to me were:

– Increased wisdom about how to handle life. People are less fazed by setbacks and are more able to roll with the punches. As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, as people get older, they react less emotionally and are better able to take things in stride.

– Feelings of accomplishment after a long career and for most, having successfully supported a family where the kids have gone on to their own lives.

– Less worry about having to please everyone all of the time. You look more within for acceptance rather than expecting external validation. You are much more self-accepting and emotionally self-sufficient.

– Greater appreciation for life because being older can mean that you are freer, both physically and psychologically.

These results provided validation for me. I am sensing that something different is on the way as I approach retirement and this simply confirmed that positive changes are on the horizon. I hope that most of you are looking forward to this time of life as well.


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