Ooh child, things are gonna' get easier... really, they might. A recent survey suggests getting older isn't just about fake teeth and failing eyesight— people might actually feel progressively happier after they hit middle age A shapshot of the age distribution of psychological well-being in the United States. Stone, A., Schwartz, J., Broderick, J., et al. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2010 Jun 1;107(22):9985-90..

If You're Happy and You Know It — Why It Matters

Many think of old age as a time for doom and gloom. And it's no wonder people associate old age with hardheartedness— it’s all over the place in popular culture, from the old witch in Snow White to grumpy Mr. Wilson in the classic Dennis the Menace. But it turns out not every senior citizen is up to no good. In fact, studies suggest older people experience more positive emotions and report feeling happier than their younger counterparts The effect of age on positive and negative affect: a developmental perspective on happiness. Mroczek, D.K., Kolarz, C.M. Fordham University, Department of Psychology, Bronx, New York. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1998; 75(5): 1333-1349. Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle? Blanchflower, D.G., Oswald, A.J. Department of Economics, Dartmouth College. Social science and medicine 2008; 66(8): 1733-1749..

Happiness tends to operate on what researchers call the “U-curve,” with reported happiness levels declining steadily between ages 18 and about age 50, then rising gradually throughout the rest of a person's life Is well-being U-shaped over the life cycle? Blanchflower, D.G., Oswald, A.J. Department of Economics, Dartmouth College. Social science and medicine 2008; 66(8): 1733-1749.. Only about a quarter of Americans between the ages of 18 and 60 display higher than average emotional health, compared to about one third of people 60 and older.

Happily Ever After? — The Answer/Debate

There are a number of potential reasons why smiling seems wasted on the young. One theory is that the definition of happiness changes with age. Younger people tend to identify happiness with excitement (roller coaster ride, anyone?), whereas older people associate happiness with feelings of peace (on second thought, the carousel is fine). Another study suggests that age changes the way different aspects of life affect happiness Happiness across age groups: Results from the 2007 Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Cooper, C., Bebbington, P., King, M., Jenkins, R., Farrell, M., Brugha, T., McManus, S., Stewart, R., Livingston, G. UCL Department of Mental Health Sciences, London. International journal of geriatric psychiatry 2011; 26(6): 608-614.. Certain factors, such as living with a partner and participating in religious services, are better predictors of happiness in older people Happiness across age groups: Results from the 2007 Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. Cooper, C., Bebbington, P., King, M., Jenkins, R., Farrell, M., Brugha, T., McManus, S., Stewart, R., Livingston, G. UCL Department of Mental Health Sciences, London. International journal of geriatric psychiatry 2011; 26(6): 608-614.. And it doesn’t help that so many of us yearn to be billionaires so frickin' bad: people born more recently tend to have higher expectations for happiness than people born decades earlier.

On the other hand, there is some research that suggests people can in fact become grumpier with age. One study indicated happiness might gradually decrease for some people starting in middle age as a result of growing dissatisfaction with health, family drama, and problems with work.

Regardless of a person's age, there are a few factors consistently linked to positive emotions. Money security, a healthy bod, and friendly faces seem to make almost everyone feel good, as some of the best predictors of happiness are financial stability, health, and social relationships.

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