April 22, 2008 -- So much for the stereotype of the older adult as an isolated, sad hermit. Age and happiness may increase together, according to new research that suggests many older adults are very happy as well as socially active.
The effects of older age on happiness are strong. Over a person's life span an increase in happiness -- with some ups and downs along the way -- is the rule, according to Yang Yang, PhD. Yang is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and the author of the study evaluating happiness among various age groups over a three-decade period.
Social connections are also common among older adults, found Benjamin Cornwell, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center on Demography and Economics of Aging at the University of Chicago and a researcher of a second study. "Seniors are not isolated," he says. Rather, they are plugged in and sociable; the 80-somethings in his study were more "plugged in" socially than those in their late 50s.
Both studies are published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.
Age and Happiness Study
With age comes happiness, found Yang as she evaluated data from the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, considered one of the best sources of happiness data in the country.
From 1972 to 2004, those administering the survey asked a cross section of more than 28,000 people the same question: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days -- would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?"
Among those 18 years old, 15% to 33% said they were very happy, with white women most likely to be very happy, followed by white men, African-American women, and African-American men.
Among the 80-year-olds, about half were very happy.
Among all those surveyed, baby boomers, born from 1946 to 1964, were least happy, with just 32% saying they were very happy.
Seniors and Social Connections
In the second study, Cornwell found that older adults remain socially active, and they sometimes beat out younger folks when it comes to social interactions. His team evaluated the results of in-home interviews with 3,005 men and women, ages 57 to 85, none living in institutions, between July 2005 and March 2006. They were part of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, a project supported by the National Institutes of Health.
The survey respondents were asked to list how many people they knew with whom they could discuss important matters, and then to tell how often they engaged in socializing with neighbors, attending religious services, volunteering, or being involved with organized groups.
The average "network" size was 3.6 people; older people are less likely to have larger networks because of retirement or the death of friends and family members.
But the older adults stayed socially connected. About three-fourths of the older adults participate in at least one of those activities at least weekly, Cornwell tells WebMD. "This is a pretty impressive level of social connectedness, we thought," he says. "The real surprise here is that it's the oldest adults in this age group -- seniors in their 70s and early 80s -- who were most engaged in their community compared to those in their 50s and 60s."
The older respondents, in fact, were twice as likely to be engaged in the activities.
Why Seniors Stay Connected
One of the reasons for increased social activities among those in their 70s and 80s could be simply that seniors are out of the work force and have more leisure time, Cornwell says.
But Cornwell thinks the better interpretation is their adaptability. They may be showing their resistance to the isolation brought on by loss of a spouse or friends to death, he says. "It's an attempt to go back out and recapture a sense of belonging and connectedness to others."
People in their 70s and 80s, Cornwell says, "enjoy being in the community, and I think that's an important image. If people hold that in their mind, I think it would change the way we view old age."
Second Opinions: Age and Happiness, Social Connections
One strength of the Yang study is that it used sophisticated statistical methods to separate out what scientists call the "cohort" effect -- how what happened during the era in which you grew up affects you and your happiness, says Tom W. Smith, PhD, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
Smith was not involved in her study but is familiar with the results. "If you think old people become depressed and grumpy, the good news is: no they don't," he says, adding, "We're talking about averages, and there are always ups and downs."
The study results on happiness make perfect sense, says Barbara Becker Holstein, PhD, a psychologist in Long Branch, N.J. With age, she notices, people's expectations become much more realistic. "The pressure from careers has dissipated. Older people can be in the moment, be in real time and enjoy it."
Both studies help dispel age stereotypes, says Adam Davey, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Temple University. "I think the stereotype is we get older, sicker, lonelier, more depressed."
To stay happy and socially engaged, Davey tells people to retain novelty in their lives by pushing beyond their comfort zone and trying new things. "I think the novelty sustains adaptability and the more adaptable, the better off we are long term.'' The more people seek out new experiences, he says, the more active and engaged they remain.