Happiness Improves with Age

Clinical studies have shown that emotional well-being improves as adults move toward old age. This study was undertaken to trace study participants over a 10-year period and establish the link between negative experiences, emotional well-being and mortality. Results of this decade-long study showed that emotional well-being increases with age. There also seemed to be a definite interrelation between emotional stability, intermingled feelings of joy and sorrow (poignancy) and well-being. Further, the rate of mortality was found to be higher among participants who experienced more negative emotions. The authors concluded, “Evidence is growing that experiencing positive emotions may not only improve quality of life, it may add years to life.”


As earlier studies pointed toward a surprising trend of improvement of emotional well-being with age, there was a need to understand the underlying mechanism and quantify the phenomenon in order to improve quality of life. To date most studies have examined isolated young adults and the elderly. This is the first study that considered adults over a span of 10 years of life and used unique measures that tap everyday emotional experiences rather than relying on standard measures of well-being. This study also attempted to measure the association between positive thoughts, emotional stability, emotional well-being and survival.

• The study was carried out in 184 English-speaking people aged 18 to 94 years in the period 1993 to 1995. It included 31 percent African American and 69 percent European American persons. Fifty-four percent were women while 46 percent were men. Of the participants, 41 percent were manual laborers while 59 percent were salaried professionals.
• At five randomly selected times every day for one week, participants were asked to note their emotional states. The same one-week procedure was repeated five (1998–2001) and then ten years (2004–2005) later. Eight positive (happiness, joy, contentment, excitement, pride, accomplishment, interest and amusement) and 11 negative emotions (anger, sadness, fear, disgust, guilt, embarrassment, shame, anxiety, irritation, frustration and boredom) were rated on a seven-point scale that ranged from one (not at all) to seven (extremely).
• Health problems (vision, allergies, etc.), general intellectual ability, variations in happiness and personalities (neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness) were calculated as part of the final results as these details could affect the emotional well-being of the person.

Key findings
• Overall emotional well-being improved and became more positive with age.  Contrary to the general view that youth is the best time in life, the peak of emotional life was reached by the seventh decade.
• Emotional experiences stabilized greatly as age advanced. Not only did negative emotions become less frequent with age but they also increasingly occurred along with positive emotions. These mixed emotions ultimately pared down the highs and lows of life, leading to emotional stability.
• People who experienced more positive than negative emotions in everyday life had a longer lifespan. Thus, a positive outlook affected mortality rates.

Next Steps
The authors believe that since the study checked on the participants on specified weeks, the emotional upheavals due to major life events might have gone unnoticed in the study. They are now studying a subset of the participants under controlled laboratory conditions to assess their physiological reactions to stress. They are also studying the genetic basis, if any, that is responsible for a more positive outlook among these people. Researchers are also exploring the premise that age, and its consequent biological needs, may demand better emotional regulation to explain these results further.

As people age they tend to become emotionally more stable and, as this study reveals, are in a better emotional state than when they were younger. The ratio of positive to negative emotions increases from early adulthood and stabilizes with age, indicating that the peak of emotional well-being may begin at the age of 70. This may indicate that with age there is an increase in poignancy, which consequently gives way to emotional stability and thereby to emotional well-being. Furthermore, a better emotional state leads to a longer life span. Exploration in this area may lead to a better understanding of how to live positively and live longer.

For More Information:
Emotional Well-Being Improves with Advancing Age
Publication Journal: Psychology and Aging, October 2010
By Laura L. Carstensen; Bulent Turan, Stanford University, California

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.
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