Does Happiness Change as People Get Older?
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How does happiness change over the lifespan? What variables might influence how happy people are? And do changes in happiness vary around the world? My colleagues and I attempted to answer these questions using the Gallup World Poll, which is a survey sent out by the Gallup Organization to people in over 150 nations, more than 1.5 million people in all. For simplicity, we combined those nations into 10 world regions: Anglo nations (such as U.S., Canada, and Ireland), Latin Europe, Germanic Europe, Nordic Europe, Eastern Europe, Confucian Asia, Southern Asia, Arab nations, Latin America, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
First, we looked at how happiness tended to change across age. We had three measures of happiness that involved overall life evaluation, positive emotions, and negative emotions. We found that overall life evaluation and negative emotions did not change substantially over age. Positive emotions, however, did change, with notable decreases in people’s ratings of items such as "happiness," "enjoyment," and “smiling or laughing” in most of the regions of the world. These findings seems to indicate that, although people do not evaluate their lives less positively overall as they get older, they may not have as many positive experiences as they did earlier in life.
We also examined four predictors of happiness, and how the associations between these four variables and happiness changed with age. Two of these predictors were demographic characteristics: people’s employment status and whether they were married. The other two were psychological characteristics: prosociality (how much people did good things for others, such as volunteering and donating to charity) and having meaning in one’s life. All four predictors were associated with a higher level of happiness at virtually all ages and in all regions. In other words, people who were employed (versus unemployed), married (versus unmarried), more prosocial, and felt that life had more meaning reported being happier.
However, these four variables were related to happiness to different degrees. Being employed was related to happiness only during middle age. This makes sense, given this is the period of life when work and professional contribution are most important. Marriage, on the other hand, was only weakly related to happiness at most ages. The association between prosociality and happiness tended to get larger as one got older, but the size of the relationships were also small.
The strongest associations were obtained for life meaning. People who had a sense of greater meaning in their lives were notably happier than those who felt less meaning. This points to the significance of having meaning in one’s life for maintaining a high evaluation of one’s life and a positive daily mood.
Using a large global dataset, this study attempted to shed light on how happiness changes over the lifespan. However, we did not track individual people over their own lives but instead compared people of different ages. Also, when looking at how our predictors related to happiness, we have to be careful not to conclude that these variables cause happiness. Psychological variables such as happiness are complex, and, although we found that they were related to happiness, we can’t say for certain that they directly caused people to be happier. And, because data from many people pooled were together, we can’t say anything about how happiness may or may not change for specific individuals.
Still, despite these limitations, we found clear evidence that some aspects of happiness do change over the lifespan, that there are important factors that relate to happiness, and that there is a large degree of consistency in these patterns around the world.
For Further Reading
Jebb, A. T., Morrison, M., Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2020). Subjective well-being around the world: Trends and predictors across the lifespan. Psychological Science, 31(3), 293-305.
Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2018). Do modern humans suffer a psychological low in midlife? Two approaches (with and without controls) in seven data sets (NBER Working Paper 23724). Retrieved from https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/170942/1/dp10958.pdf
Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95, 542–575.
Andrew Jebb has a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology and currently works as a research scientist at the University of Oklahoma.