What makes older Americans happier? Age itself. (And work.)

Sounds improbable, doesn’t it? We tend to think of the United States as a bumptious country where youth culture rules, where the elderly are sidelined as an unpleasant reminder of sagging flesh and dimming prospects. Yet, as I’ve noted on this blog, several recent surveys of happiness at different ages show that the elderly come out ahead. 

The most recent is the General Social Survey conducted by Yang Yang at the University of Chicago, which has interviewed the same set of Americans since 1972. In an earlier post about the report, I surmised that the contentment was related to making the best of things — a philosophical adjustment to a relative sense of wellbeing. But an analysis by Shankar Vedantam in the Washington Post rebuts that theory. Vedantam notes that Yang Yang “used the granular detail of the survey to eliminate the possibility that older people seemed happier because they were raised in a generation that was taught from an early age to be content with its lot.” Respondents over 65 weren’t wearing rose-tinted bifocals. They hadn’t always been happy. Their state of mind wasn’t rooted in gratitude for having weathered the Depression or World War II . Rather, “it was being older that conferred the contentment that many of them reported.”

Yes, they had more health problems. But they also reported far fewer of the kind of financial and personal issues that angered and worried younger respondents. Job satisfaction? People over 65 were happiest in their work. “A lot of people think of people working in their 60s and 70s as trapped in their jobs,” commented Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey. On the contrary, “Most older workers work because they enjoy their jobs; those who did not were mostly able to retire and pursue other things.”

Clearly, purposeful activity correlates with happiness; no surprise there. Also with the acknowledgement that options and energy are limited. But the fact that this contentment is rooted in the very fact of having grown old is a surprise, and one worth sticking on the door of the fridge.

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