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70 is the new happy

| September 1, 2022 1:00 AM

Dear under-50s: If you aren’t looking forward to getting old, think again.

Turns out, far from being the depressing decline we envision in our 20s and 30s, “old age” is more likely to be when life is most satisfying.

A handful of studies by researchers from the University of California-Irvine and University of Southern California indicate that self-reported life satisfaction has two peaks in adult life: one in the early 20s and another after 60, holding well into the 80s (or when health problems become too challenging).

Happy has no steady decline into old age; instead, its pattern is U-shaped, with a midlife dip right about the time many are focused on career and future planning.

One landmark longitudinal study across adult life spans by psychologists Susan Charles (UCI) and Margaret Gatz (USC) — the first of its kind in the U.S. — found that negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, stress and frustration steadily decline with age.

Positive emotions, such as excitement, pride, calm and elation, remained stable across the lifespan. Only the very oldest group registered a very slight decline in positive emotions. The 70-year-old participants consistently reported higher current happiness than 30-year-olds.

The researchers also asked respondents about their stress levels. About half of those aged 20 to their late 40s reported “considerable stress.” After that, stress levels began to drop dramatically, almost in a straight line from 50 to 70, when only about 17% reported experiencing significant stress.

Instead of dreading growing old, we could be looking forward to it.

In another 2010 study led by USC Dornsife psychology professor Arthur Stone and Nobel laureate and economist Sir Angus Deaton, researchers evaluated experiential well-being in people ranging from 20 to 80 years old, using data from 400,000 participants gathered by the Gallup Organization.

Results almost mirrored the first study.

“What we found was that in our 20s, we’re at a moderate level of life satisfaction, then it drops down to the lowest levels in our early 50s and then it starts shooting up through age 80,” Stone said in a USC statement.

But if you like those straight lines, there’s another one: Emotions.

When Stone and his team looked at specific emotions, they found feelings of anger, frustration and distress were highest among young adults. These negative emotions gradually and steadily lessened with age, much like the general stress reported in the first study.

Why? Is it that older folks have less to worry about, or that they are better at coping with it?

The researchers seemed to think both, or neither. While it’s true that few people over 60 are still running ragged on the job or stressed about planning out their lives, younger people are less worried about not having time to create financial security. Nor are many experiencing serious health challenges, mortality and loss.

Stone and his team looked for variables such as income, marriage, death, kids (adult or otherwise) living at home and so on, but could not find a correlation that explained the age differences in overall life satisfaction. To learn the answer, the researchers say more research is warranted.

Maybe it’s part practice. It’s not unusual for people to find it easier to regulate emotions as they age. Reactions temper. They learn how to avoid harmful or stressful environments and exposures. They get better at resiliency or one might say, we return to the resiliency of early childhood. “Don’t sweat the small stuff” more easily becomes second nature.

Whatever it is, we’ll all get there. Why not embrace it?

“I learned to belly dance today. I didn’t have to do much; I just gave it a little shake and the darn thing started dancing on its own!”

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who doesn’t miss being young. Email sholeh@cdapress.com.