Old and Happy? It’s a Matter of Attitude

Researchers find that as people age, declining health and declining mental function don't make people any less happy. But having the right attitude seems to matter a lot.
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Researchers find that as people age, declining health and declining mental function don't make people any less happy. But having the right attitude seems to matter a lot.

It’s not easy getting old. The body starts to break down, and the mind begins to fade. These things, it is often thought, will leave us depressed and unhappy. As researchers are finding out, however, they actually don’t.

These ravages of time, as it turns out, have very little to do with one’s happiness. Actually, older people report being just as happy, if not happier, than their younger compatriots. Researchers who study aging and happiness have dubbed this the “paradox of well-being.”

But why? What’s going on?

Last summer, four researchers in the University of Virginia psychology department — professors Shigehiro Oishi and Timothy A. Salthouse, along with Ph.D. candidates Karen L. Siedlecki (the lead investigator on the project and now a postdoc at Columbia) and Elliot M. Tucker-Drob — decided to try to understand a little more about what is behind this apparent paradox.

They started from the premise that there is a lot of literature out there already on the different things that might make people feel better or worse about their lives, including their health and their mental functioning. But are these determinants of “subjective well-being” (the term favored by the researchers) the same across all ages? Do certain things matter more as people get older? Do certain things matter less?

The researchers surveyed 818 people aged 18 to 94. They asked a battery of questions trying to get at the underlying correlates of life satisfaction: How healthy were these people? Were they depressed, anxious or neurotic generally? How good were they at various cognitive processing tasks? And what about their general knowledge and experiences?

By including all these factors and surveying people from all ages, the researchers thought they could produce the most comprehensive study to date. Their findings are reported in The Journal of Positive Psychology.

Some of what they found was expected. For example, people who were generally anxious, depressed or neurotic (or, in the parlance of the psychologists, people who had a high “negative affect”) were significantly less happy. Interestingly, the effect was roughly the same across all ages.

Once the researchers controlled for this “negative affect,” however, the big surprise was that healthier people were not really any happier. “Our prediction was that health should be strongly associated with well-being among older people because health seems to be such a huge concern,” Oishi said. “We didn’t find that, so that was surprising.”

One possibility is that people who generally keep a positive disposition do not get thrown off by health problems. Rather, as Oishi explained, people are very good at rationalizing their circumstances and, if they are generally upbeat, can fairly easily convince themselves that whatever health problems they have are not that bad — somebody, after all, is probably worse off. On the other hand, people who are generally pessimistic might dwell on even the smallest problems.

This lack of correlation between age and well-being was true across all ages studied, though Siedlecki does suggest a little caution — the population the researchers interviewed was generally healthy, and the measure of health used was self-reported health. “It’s hard to be definitive,” she said. “But it’s clear the correlation is fairly small, and if there is any relationship, it is minimal. What’s important is that negative affect is a much stronger predictor of life satisfaction.”

Likewise with intelligence, older people who were slower at mental tasks were no less happy than those who were faster, controlling for everything else. But the younger and middle-aged people who were slower mentally did report less life satisfaction.

In assessing cognitive functioning, the researchers were testing for two kinds of intelligence, fluid and crystallized. Fluid intelligence is the basic stuff of cognitive processing — reasoning, abstraction, making inferences. Crystallized intelligence is what you have learned — your memories, your experiences. Psychologists think these two types of intelligence are largely distinct.

Generally, crystallized intelligence did not have much of an effect on life satisfaction once everything else was controlled for. But fluid intelligence — which degrades much faster as people age — was a positive predictor of subjective well-being only for younger and middle-aged people. For older people, a loss in one’s mental sharpness was not associated with a decline in happiness.

The researchers speculate that this has something to do with the fact that fluid intelligence tends to help people be more successful in their jobs and that people who are more successful in their jobs are generally happier. Once people retire, however, they focus on different things. “Our research suggests a shift in values as we grow older, and it may be that there is a shift towards emotional regulation and personal relationships as we grow older,” Siedlecki said.

Additionally, perhaps when retired people have more time on their hands, the same analytical skills that they once channeled into the workplace instead get turned inward.

“When you start analyzing yourself, the literature shows that ruminations and things like that are predictors of depression,” Oishi said. “So perhaps if you don’t have to perform high-cognitive-function tasks and your day just consists of your conversation with your spouse, perhaps it is better not to think and reason all that much.”

None of the researchers, however, suggests that people shouldn’t spend time doing crossword puzzles or playing mental games in order to keep their minds sharp, as long as they enjoy those things in the first place and thus are made happy. But, Oishi noted, “I guess I just wouldn’t be overly concerned about it. It’s not worth spending too much time and energy, since social relations are always the strongest predictor of well-being.”

In a separate (forthcoming) study, Oishi and colleagues found that adults who retired in places where they had larger social networks (as well as easier transportation and more access to medical services) were generally happier than those who retired to places based on cultural and recreational opportunities (that is, they “overstated the importance of the novelty factors,” according to the researchers).

So what advice does this research offer people seeking to stay happy as they age? Since how one perceives one’s circumstances seems to have much more to do with happiness than the actual circumstances, this strongly suggests that what matters most is attitude. Good health and an active mind are nice, but if you’re depressed, anxious or neurotic all the time, you’re just simply not going to enjoy their benefits.

“Cognitive abilities tend to decline with age, but self-rated reports of subjective well-being don’t decline with age,” Siedlecki said. “Therefore, even though successful aging is often considered in terms of cognitive and physical functioning, perhaps people should also consider how satisfied they are with their life as being an important component of successful aging.”

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