June 27, 2010

USA: Better with age: Happiness grows after 50, study finds

LACONIA, New Hampshire  / Laconia Citizen / June 27, 2010

PORTSMOUTH — Joanne Dodge, 74, of Dover, is long past worrying about her body image and is loving life despite the health setbacks that often come with age.

"I've learned to become more comfortable with myself, and I don't feel like the whole world is looking at me," Dodge said.

A recent study by New York's Stony Brook University of people's mindsets at different ages suggests Dodge isn't the only person who has been worrying a lot less as they get older.

The study followed a Gallup Healthways poll telephone survey undertaken in 2008 that sought, through a series of questions, to gauge the differing levels of stress and well-being reported by people between the ages of 18 to 85.

Upward of 340,000 individuals nationwide were asked about their age, sex, personal finances and health with the study differentiating an overall feeling of "global well-being" versus their more "hedonic" or immediate feelings — a determiner focusing on how a person felt yesterday with regard to emotions ranging from happiness to worry.

Results of the polling analyzed through a study titled "A snapshot of the age distribution of psychological well being in the U.S.," showed that after an individual reaches 50 years old, life perceptions are more positive and feelings of worry or stress begin to decline.

The research findings confirm earlier reports that between the ages of 18 and 50, perceptions of global well-being tend to decline with age, while after age 50, perceptions become more positive as people grow older, thus creating a U-shaped curve when ratings are plotted by age.

Arthur Stone, the lead author of the NYU study, said results focusing on people's more immediate feelings showed slightly different results.

The hedonic measure showed stress was at its highest for those in their early 20s, with 52 percent of people in that age group reporting feelings of anxiety. He said that number diminished to about 18 percent for those in their late 70s.

"We found that trickled downward in a linear way through (those in their) late 70s," Stone said.

Similar findings showed — beginning at age 50 — individuals reported progressively less worry on a day-to-day basis.

Stone said one thing that is perplexing is that the analysis showed changes in perception of well-being are not associated with factors like having a partner, having children at home, or employment status.

"The big question," Stone said, "is what's going on ... why is stuff seeming to get better at age 50?"

Stone speculated that the finding might result from younger adults being in a station in life where they are still trying to prove themselves from both an employment and personal standpoint as they focus on a still uncertain future.

He said the study might suggest that once people reach age 50 they are able to focus on the now and essentially have the time to "stop and smell the flowers."

"They are saying they know where they are and 'I've achieved what I want to achieve,'" Stone said.

Dodge — an avid kayaker, grandmother and active member of the "Senior Moments" acting troupe — said she certainly has a different perspective from when she was a younger woman trying to establish herself.

She said one thing that has changed is that she is far less worried about body image.

"I don't lose a lot of extra sleep over a couple extra pounds. I've accepted that what is sagging is going to sag," Dodge said with a laugh.

Dodge said her current place in life allows her to sit down and relax.

"I'm enjoying life a lot," she said.

The Dover woman has survived three bouts with breast cancer and recently had a cataract removed.

She said old age brings health concerns, but she doesn't let those bring her down.

"I can only feel sorry for myself for a day or so," Dodge said.

Experts in the field say Dodge is among those who have reached a point where they experience less anxiety as a result of life experiences.

John Sargent — a Portsmouth-based clinical mental health counselor and career coach — said based on his dealings with clients of different age groups, he isn't surprised by the findings.

"I think the 50 year old may have adjusted to what their future looks like," said Sargent — a former head of operations for an S&P 500 company.

He noted that individuals in their 50s have usually passed a "mid-life crisis" point that forced them to make "significant course corrections" that helped them become better adjusted and more content.

"If you are particularly in the corporate world, you know your future by age 40 and whether you're going to be in that corner office," Sargent said.

The career coach said anxiety levels are usually much higher for younger adults as they climb corporate ladders and deal with relationships that have yet to be cemented by marriage.

"The verdict hasn't been decided yet," Sargent said of that stage of life.

Sargent suggested that those raising children are likely the most stressed right now as a result of the economy.

Lucille Karatzas — the director of Elder Services at Seacoast Mental Health — said she believes the study shows the impact perspective can have on people's judgment of their own well-being.

Karatzas — a clinical social worker who deals largely with individuals 60 and older — noted people seem to become more adjusted and better equipped to handle what life throws at them as a result of their larger collection of past experiences.

"That population has for the most part figured out the balance of work and life and are probably moving toward thinking about quality of life issues," she said.

One thing that should be noted is that improvements in medicine and an emphasis on preventive health care have allowed the senior population to enjoy improved vision, hearing and nutrition, she said.

"People are looking at getting older as something to look forward to and not to dread," she said.

She said older adults are in a position in life where they can focus on their happiness rather than earning money, finding a partner, supporting a family and overall whether they will be successful at any of those things.

Karatzas is 64 and said her perspective on well-being on a day-to-day basis is certainly different from what it would have been if someone asked her about it when she was in her 20s or 30s.

She noted that younger adults are less equipped to process problems like the struggling stock market than older individuals who have seen the ups and downs of the economy.

"You feel less stressed because you have the experience and longevity to know it will pass," Karatzas said.

Joanne Dodge, 74, of Dover, said she is at a point in life where she is still active, but more relaxed. A recent study shows levels of worry diminish after individuals turn 50.

Copyright © 2010 Geo. J. Foster Company.