It doesn’t matter whether you’re employed, whether your children still live at home, or even whether you’re married. Life gets better after age 50. A new phone survey of hundreds of thousands of Americans confirms that people tend to be happier, less anxious, and less worried once they pass the half-century mark.
The main measure of well-being is called global well-being, which involves asking people how good they feel about their life in general. “That’s been the standard in survey research,” says psychologist Arthur Stone of Stony Brook University in New York state. But, he says, “this kind of question requires people to make a lot of judgments.” For example, who should you be using for comparison: Your peers? Bill Gates? Victims of famine? The life you thought you’d have? It’s also difficult to measure logistically: Scientists often ask people to wear pagers, and researchers beep them several times a day to remind the volunteers to record their feelings.
Stone took a different, easier approach. Thanks to his work as a senior scientist with the Gallup Organization, which conducts a huge, ongoing telephone survey in the United States with questions on topics such as how well the president is doing his job and how confident consumers are in the economy, he was able to help write questions about specific emotions people felt the day before they took the survey. The survey reached more than 350,000 people in 2008 from all regions of the United States.
Stone’s team found that global well-being declines from the 20s to age 50, then increases steadily. Happiness and enjoyment also increase after age 50. Although sadness is fairly flat throughout the age groups, most negative feelings decline with age. Worry stays level until about 50, then drops. Anger falls steadily from the 20s; stress peaks in the 20s, starts a decline, then plummets after age 50. The patterns are almost identical for men and women, although women have more stress, worry more, and are sadder at all ages, despite reporting better global well-being than men at most ages. The study appears online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The findings make sense to anyone who has gotten out of their 20s, says Stone. “If you were to do a survey and say, ‘How many of you would like to be 25 again?’ you don’t get a lot of takers,” he says.
Stone and his colleagues looked at a few variables to see whether they explained the patterns—for example, whether people had children at home or were unemployed—but found little association. One explanation, says Laura Carstensen, a life-span developmental psychologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who was not involved in the study, is that older people may be better at regulating their emotions. As we age, she says, we may be more aware that our time is running out and “begin to be much more careful and selective on what we focus on.”
Carstensen is also excited about the new research because it suggests that a relatively inexpensive survey can yield the same answers as asking people how they feel several times a day. “He’s found a way to get just a thin slice of information and found that it corresponds very nicely with reports in the literature” on emotions at different ages, she says.
The study may have global implications, adds Richard Suzman, director of the Division of Behavioral and Social Research of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland. Measuring well-being could help show if a medical treatment is worthwhile; not just whether patients lived or died, but whether the intervention improved their life. And a good index of well-being could give a sense of how a city, county, or country is doing, he says, that reaches beyond the usual economic measures. “[It] would be, metaphorically, the equivalent of a GDP or GNP.”