Why You Get Happier as You Age

Though many young people think that life is “all downhill from here,” research shows that the older years of our life are also our happiest.

By Dan
August 3, 2020

If you had to pick a period of life during which you’re the happiest, chances are you’d pick young adulthood. Your body is in great shape; you’re healthy, surrounded by friends, and have a world of possibilities in front of you. You feel like nothing can hold you back.

However, research shows that most people are much happier in their old age. Despite a decline in physical and cognitive abilities, your mental state actually improves as you get farther in your life. Basically, the older you are, the happier you become. This phenomenon is best illustrated through the "happiness curve."


The Happiness Curve

Though seemingly paradoxical, this idea is tied to the natural pressures of young adulthood, which contribute to an atmosphere of stress and uncertainty. Questions about how to find the right romantic partner, choose an enjoyable yet lucrative career, and transition to financial stability constantly plague the minds of young adults.

Since the “self” is still being formed in this stage of life, it makes sense that the search for a core identity is both emotionally and temporally consuming. Conversely, older adults have typically cemented their identity, leading to greater emotional stability and overall happiness. 

For this reason, lifetime happiness can be modeled on a kind of “U-curve,” (or, as some have whimsically modeled it, a smiley face), with physical and cognitive health having a surprisingly inverse relationship with happiness.

Remarkably, people entering their 20s and 30s reported having the highest levels of stress, depression, and anxiety among all age groups. Simultaneously, they also have the lowest levels of contentment, and well-being. In contrast, people in their 50s and 60s have much higher life satisfaction, emotional stability, and positivity as compared to their younger counterparts. 


Knowing Your Future: The Key to Happiness

The shape of the happiness curve can be partially attributed to the ability of older people to focus on the positive aspects of situations—to look at life from the bright side. As people get older, they become more positive, focusing less on their problems and more on their successes. They are affected by negative situations less than younger people, as emotional meaning gains priority over mundane vexations. An evening spent reading stories to grandchildren will greatly outweigh the annoyance of achy knees or the need for stronger glasses.

These findings support the principles of socioemotional selectivity theory (SST), which refers to the relationship between increased happiness and a limited timeline. Happiness, according to SST, is tied to an individual’s certainty in their future. Since younger people are confronted by an unpredictable future, they focus their energy on acquiring the knowledge necessary to combat whatever challenges may lie ahead.

This ambiguity makes young adults less embedded in the “now” and leads them to delay internal emotional satisfaction in order to gain stability and success later on. This is akin to going to college for several years in order to later have more job opportunities, completing a summer internship to get career connections, or exercising daily to prevent future health issues. 

Conversely, when facing a shorter time span, a person will focus on the present—prioritizing emotional satisfaction over preparation for the future. Happiness, in turn, becomes the biggest priority for the aging adult, as do immediate values such as love, family connection, and self-reflection. This transition from living through the future to living through the present is one long touted by psychologists as “the key to happiness.”

The Pleasure of Perspective

The happiness curve may also be affected by older adults' deep connection to the past. In fact, a lot of what contributes to increased emotional wellbeing for older people is their wisdom—their ability to grow from life experiences and to gain an understanding about their place in the world. Wisdom increases the sense of self and contributes strongly to the notion of “successful aging.

Furthermore, wisdom allows for an individual to have a meaningful relationship with their past, using their memories as a lens through which to view their identity. This accumulation of memories is what gives older people perspective—teaching them to not sweat the small stuff.

After all, where would you be without perspective? As you remember countless embarrassing or negative moments (like that time you spilled yogurt over yourself while breakfasting with your boyfriend’s family), you also remember that none of them really mattered. Though your younger self may have felt mortally humiliated after such frightening food fiascos, those moments are now funny stories that you remember with a smile.

Furthermore, age shows us that even losses that seem incredibly consequential in the moment (like breakups, which are commonly described as “feeling like the end of the world”), ultimately mean little in the grand scheme of life. Filtered by nostalgia goggles, or the tendency for people to look at past events through a positive lens, the past instead becomes a harbor of positive experiences and pleasant recollections. So, when older people look back upon past loves, they will focus on happiness instead of heartbreak. 

So, older people really are happier—due to a strong sense of identity, a focus on meaningful emotion, and accumulated perspective. Ultimately, in the words of David Bowie, “aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” So, celebrate your transformation into the person you’ve always wanted to be—someone who is positive, rich in meaningful memories, and knows to make happiness a priority. As you record the lessons you’ve learned along the way, look forward to the times to come. Your happiness curve will just keep on going up.

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To learn more about the positive feelings associated with reminiscing, check out this article: What Causes Nostalgia Goggles?