Do you know people that are elderly and are happy? Do you know people that are elderly and are sad and depressed?

Chances are you know both types of people. And yes in spite of what you may be seeing, research is pointing out that both perspectives can increase with age.

In a 2013 study published in Psychological Science, researchers led by Angelina Sutin found that research done earlier about happiness and aging had a major flaw in it. Differences between happiness in middle age and happiness in old people were not due to ageing but because of life situations that differed when they were born.

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Those born during the depression, for example, will not be as happy as those born in better times because of the initial differences in happiness. As people age they become more emotional and experience both sadness and happiness and we can see it more easily.

Do we expect happiness to come with age?

How does expectation fit into how we see aging anyway? Have you ever heard that what you expect to see is what you see? For example ordering that food from a photo on the menu and then being disappointed when what you actually get is not even close. In terms of expectations about people, stereotypes can come into play.

This is just a way that the mind generalizes to save time socially as we go through the world. It is a handy device and yet, by not being in touch with what is really happening in the moment, we can miss “reality” and stay in our minds instead. Consider how this works with what we think about aging.

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What are your expectations about happiness and age?

“Especially when we’re young, it’s really easy to look at older adults and see the loss: loss of youth, loss of mobility, loss of loved ones,” Sutin says. “We assume that all of that loss would make older adults unhappy. It’s harder to see the benefits of aging: feelings of pride for children and grandchildren, a meaningful career, more confidence, wisdom.

There are a lot of reasons to be happy in older adulthood, but they may not be as visible as the losses.” When they are, however, it turns out that happiness is one of the benefits that come with age. (Szalavitz, 2013)

What is happiness anyway?

According to a recent article I wrote for WatchFit, “Research suggests that happiness is a combination of satisfaction and how you feel”. According to Acacia Parks, Ph. D. ‘ The research suggests that happiness is a combination of how satisfied you are with life (for example, finding meaning in your work) and how good you feel on a day-to-day basis.’

Positive Psychology has been studying happiness and teaching classes on the science of happiness since the work of Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania.”

How satisfied you are over time with life is a more reflective perspective and the day to day focus provides a more immediate view of life. A study from 2008 of more than 340,000, researchers found Americans in their “mid-to late- 50s are generally happier, and experience less stress and worry than young adults in their 20s.

“People’s overall satisfaction with their lives shows a U-shaped pattern, dipping down until about the age of 50 before trending upward again.” (Rettner, 2010).

One explanation for this trend upward after 50 is changes that occur in the brain. According to David Brooks (2014, New York Times) “For example, when you show people a crowd of faces, young people unconsciously tend to look at the threatening faces but older people’s attention gravitates toward the happy ones.

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Older people are more relaxed, on average. They are spared some of the burden of thinking about the future. As a result, they get more pleasure out of present, ordinary activities.”

Lifelong learning matters.

And yet, according to Brooks, that is not the complete answer. He sees elder happiness as “an accomplishment, not a condition, that people get better at living through effort, by mastering specific skills.” Those skills include seeing situations through multiple perspectives, being at ease with the downsides of life, balancing competing demand and having more of a feel for what other people are thinking and feeling.

Does happiness come with age?

Yes! Laura Carstensen, in a 2012 Ted Talk, says, “Now there are problems associated with aging – diseases, poverty, loss of social status. It’s hardly time to rest on our laurels. But the more we learn about aging, the clearer it becomes that a sweeping downward course is grossly inaccurate.

Aging brings some rather remarkable improvements; increased knowledge, expertise, and emotional aspects of life improve. That’s right, older people are happy. They’re happier than middle-aged people, and younger people certainly. Study after study is coming to the same conclusion.”

The ability to clearly see priorities and savor life opens up the possibility to invest in more emotionally important parts of life. With this perspective, happy people are less likely to tolerate injustice and more likely to do what is beneficial and possible for those suffering.

It is so good to know that continued happiness is absolutely possible for each of us as we age. That is good news!

Connect here with Expert Dorothy Rodwell.

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