One of the things that people dread the most is getting old, and the idea that the best years of your life are over or that you’re on the downslope. I think that’s really scary and really depressing for a lot of people.
I have a chapter about that in my book, The Myths of Happiness, and I think it’s really important for all of us to understand what the research shows about aging. I think one of the findings that people are surprised about is that older people are actually happier than younger people.
The youngest people, teenagers, people in their 20s, are the least happy bunch. There’s a lot of uncertainty and you are forming your identity and you’re not really sure who you are. You might not have the confidence that you have when you’re older. But the surveys show that people tend to get happier as they get older and that peak happens fairly late. It sort of depends on the study but generally in your 60s and some studies show in the 70s. And then after that people do get less happy for some obvious reasons, such as health and your friends passing away.
But I think that’s a really great lesson that old age actually can bring happiness. Now why are older people happier? I think one of the main reasons is when we’re older we’re emotionally wiser. They’re less likely to take risks. They’re less likely to want to meet new people, for example.
One of my favorite studies asks people if you could have lunch with your favorite author or your best friend, or your sister, who would you rather have lunch with and younger people invariably say my favorite author. Older people say someone who they are familiar with, someone who they really love spending time with. They take fewer risks and they’re more likely to spend time with people who make them happy. They avoid people who make them unhappy. Older people for various reasons seem to have what’s called the positivity bias. So they tend to be more positive. They pay more attention to positive information than to negative information.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think’s studio.
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