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Recently, Psychological Science published a report showing that happiness does in fact increase with age, but that overall wellbeing is determined through the time-period a person is born. At first, this doesn’t make much sense and even seems contradictory, but let me explain.
Researchers used data from thousands of participants spanning a period of thirty years. They factored in variables such as ethnicity, employment, sex, and medication into the study. Originally, when the researchers analyzed the participants’ data, older subjects seemed to have lower levels of happiness than their younger counterparts. When that same data was analyzed by grouping it according to dates of birth, however, an opposite trend was discovered. It appeared that older people showed the greatest increase of happiness throughout their lives. The original appearance of less happiness was because older people started at a lower level of wellbeing than those born more recently. Researchers hypothesized that early life happiness levels are determined by economic prosperity, social program improvements, and educational opportunities.
Another study, performed last year by the University of Warwick, showed that happiness forms a U-curve. Happiness reaches its lowest point at around 45 years old, but then rises again as we age. Dr. Stranges, who ran the study, said one of the reasons happiness may increase with age is that older people have better coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms help deal with hardship or loss that younger people often suffer from. While this fits into the archetype of accumulating wisdom with age and finally becoming comfortable in the universe, there is also a biological reason older people are able to cope more effectively.
In the book, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers claims that elderly people are unwittingly participating in self-deception as a coping mechanism. He claims older adults prefer positive appearances, ignore negative stimuli, and by contrast, focus more attentively on positive stimuli. This is not by choice, Trivers writes, but rather a natural evolutionary process. Since the primary dangers in old age include germs, diseases, cancer, and general degeneration, a positive outlook boosts the immune system and acts as a defense. Conversely, younger people instead focus on external negative stimuli to maximize their reproductive availability. Since reproductive concern diminishes with age, the body focuses instead on a healthier immune system, which in turn produces happiness, and vice versa.
Now, there are reasons to be happy beyond these strictly scientific explanations. With age comes more control, stability, leisure, and most importantly, extra time for loved ones. It is nice to know, however, that our bodies are working in conjunction with our desire for happiness and rather than fear the aging process, our bodies welcome it.
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