Longevity science has a way of challenging purported absolutes. Old age, for instance, is all but synonymous with despair and desolation in the Western World but is there actually any evidence to support the supposition that people in their twenties are happier than those in their 60’s or even 70’s?
A new study published in the journal Psychological Science cautions against pairing age with satisfaction on principle.
“A pervasive concern among many people across the world is that growing older and reaching senior status means leaving their best days behind,” state the researchers. “However, a fair bit of longitudinal and cross-sectional research has shown that levels of happiness remain relatively stable across the life span. Using representative cross-sections from 166 nations (more than 1.7 million respondents), […] we found only very small differences in life satisfaction.”
The mechanisms that sustained happiness were multifaceted. Ultimately, employment, marriage and a sense of purpose posed the deepest impact on life satisfaction outcomes.
“These findings enhance our understanding of subjective-well-being patterns and what matters for subjective well-being across the life span.”
Subjective Well-Being Around the World: Trends and Predictors Across the Life Span
The study pool was comprised of individuals between the ages of 20 and 80 from all across the world.
Each participant was asked to evaluate their well being via a 10-point scale. Zero suggested that a respondent was living “their worst possible life” and the number ten denoted the opposite.
On balance life satisfaction declines gradually over time for just about everyone but there are several key non-age related buffers that were found to further influence the rate of decline:
“Marriage, employment, prosociality, and life meaning. These predictors were typically associated with higher subjective well-being over the life span in every world region. Marriage showed only very small associations for the three outcomes, whereas employment had larger effects that peaked around age 50 years,” the authors continued. Prosociality had practically significant associations only with positive affect, and life meaning had strong, consistent associations with all subjective-well-being measures across regions and ages.”
All of the predictors listed above were concluded to be more prevalent in some regions compared to others. This metric determined that elderly citizens living in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK, and the US enjoy a high degree of life satisfaction.
Conversely, France, Israel, Italy, Malta, Moldova, Portugal, and Spain) and Eastern Europe (composed of Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Montenegro, Northern Cyprus, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine evidenced the sharpest decline in happiness over time.
Even in the worst-case scenarios the rate of decline was fractional compared to the population at large.
“Overall, we found only very small differences in life satisfaction […] across the life span. The marriage had very small associations with subjective well-being, whereas employment had larger effects that peaked around age 50.”