Past research in the United States on psychological well-being — our overall happiness and satisfaction in life — hasn’t provided a clear picture of whether that feeling increases or decreases with age.
Some studies have suggested that self-reported well-being by Americans remains fairly stable, on average, throughout adulthood. Others have shown a slight aging-related decline, with a more significant drop in old age. Still others have found a U-shape pattern, with higher levels of well-being at both the start and the end of adulthood.
A new study, led by researchers at the National Institute of Aging (NIA), has uncovered what may be an explanation for those discrepancies. Using data from two large longitudinal studies that followed several thousand people from different generations for more than 30 years, the NIA researchers at first found that older Americans tended to have lower levels of well-being than younger and middle-aged adults.
But when the researchers controlled for birth cohort — in other words, for the generations in which the people were born — they found just the opposite: People reported being increasingly satisfied with life as they aged, even after taking into account other factors, such as health, gender, ethnicity and education.
Why did controlling for birth cohort make a difference? Because the older cohorts — especially people born between 1885 and 1925 — had started adulthood with self-reported levels of well-being that were lower than those reported by the younger cohorts at the same periods in their lives. So although the older cohorts’ levels of well-being increased with age, they still remained lower overall than the levels of the younger cohorts. And that made it look like well-being declined with age.
The effect of age on well-being was modest, “but not trivial,” the NIA researchers note. “[I]t was larger than the effect of gender and roughly similar to the effect of education (i.e., the difference between holding a high-school diploma and holding a college degree). Thus, older adults maintain and may even improve their emotional well-being, despite the inevitable physical and social losses that occur with aging.”
A legacy of economic hard times
As this study’s findings suggest, the social and economic environment in which we grow up contributes to how we rate our well-being.
“In the current study,” write the NIA researchers, “the level of well-being of cohorts born in the early part of the 20th century, particularly those who lived through the Great Depression, was substantially lower than the level of well-being of cohorts who grew up during more-prosperous times. Such economic troubles can have devastating, lasting effects. For example, the psychological effects of unemployment continue even after reemployment, and well-being may never return to pre-unemployment levels.”
This may not be good news for today’s younger generations, who are still struggling with the economic effects of the Great Recession.
“The 20th century in the United States was a period marked by rapid progress, with increased longevity, greater educational and economic opportunities, and the advent of social services that ensure a minimum standard of living for the elderly,” write the NIA researchers. “The greater well-being enjoyed by younger cohorts may be the cumulative effect of both economic prosperity and public programs designed to build a highly educated workforce (e.g., the G.I. Bill of 1944 provided an avenue to education for millions of veterans) and buffer against the setbacks of employment (e.g., the Federal Unemployment Tax Act of 1939 created unemployment benefits.”
“As young adults today enter a stagnant workforce,” the researchers add, “the challenges of high unemployment may have implications for their well-being that outlast the period of joblessness. Economic turmoil may impede psychological, as well as financial, growth even decades after times get better.”