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Friday Aug 26

Happiness Is In the Eye of the Beholder

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Written by Galia Myron Tuesday, 06 October 2009 22:27

Gallup poll finds that levels of happiness differ between age groups and men and women.

An analysis of over half a million Americans has found that happiness varies between age groups and that women enjoy a slightly higher level of happiness than men do at specific life stages. The survey found that people of different stages of adulthood report varying levels of happiness, with young adults reporting the highest happiness levels, while people in their 30s and 40s report a lower level of happiness. Individuals in their 50s report an even lower dip in happiness, while people in their 60s describe a more optimistic state. Happiness levels drop again for those in their 70s and 80s, but rises again for those in their 90s.

While men and women tend to report generally equal happiness levels, women in middle age report slightly higher levels of happiness compared to their male counterparts, with the gender gap favoring women again in their 80s.

How is life stage and happiness related? Is there even such a link between age and happiness? It depends, say experts.

“In general, I tend to attribute the age differences to cohort effects, rather than on actual life-span differences,” says Mikhail Lyubansky, PhD, clinical psychologist and lecturer in Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“I think it is likely that the Baby Boomers will continue to report the least amount of happiness as they get older. Similarly, today's college students focus on being happy,” he adds. “I'm not sure if they'll maintain that focus as they transition into the workplace and parenthood, but it's possible.”

Lyubansky says the Gallup data make it difficult to figure out how closely life stage is tied to happiness.

“Life-span differences may be playing a role too, but it's hard to understand how given the nature of these data,” he explains. “For example, young children are often simultaneously a source of considerable stress but are often reported to be the source of joy as well. It would be interesting to examine the effect of young children on happiness but these data do not permit that since people become parents at very different ages.”

Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, says that in her clinical practice, she has observed differences in happiness that relate to her clients’ life stages.

With youth comes optimism, she explains. “The happiest adult Americans—those aged 18-20—are hopeful about their future: what they can do to better their own lives and the lives of those around them,” Lombardo, who has written a new book called A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, explains.

Lombardo contends that as life stages present different challenges, happiness levels change as well. “As this group ages into their 30s and 40s, stresses of life, [such as] family, paying for a home [and] credit cards, and the monotony of every day life, hinder happiness,” she says.

The challenging economy also affects happiness levels, for some age groups more than for others, Lombardo notes.

”People in their 50s are really dealing with the poor economy,” she adds. “They had planned on retiring about now, or within a few years. But now, with a huge downturn in their portfolios, retirement is not as close or as luxurious as they had anticipated.” Men and women in their 60s, Lombardo says, may be happily retired and counting their blessings, while those in the 70s and 80s are grieving the loss of friends and loved ones to death and illness. 

Thos who have made it past those obstacles may have finally found a way to enjoy each day. “The upward surge of 91 year olds and older may be related to a sense of gratitude and appreciation for still being alive; taking one day at a time and enjoying what experience they are still able to have,” Lombardo says.

In terms of the gender gap, happiness expert, motivational speaker and author Mark Black  says that the gap may be due to several reasons, not least of which is how men and women are socialized differently in terms of their careers and identity.

“While most women now have careers, not as many of those who are now in their middle aged years were ‘career’ women,” Black explains. ”And those who were, didn't allow their careers to define them the way that men do.”  

Because men and women define themselves differently in relation to their careers, they don’t react to retirement in the same way, Black contends, and this may affect their happiness at specific life stages.

“Men tend to fall into the trap of becoming what they do, while women realize better that they are many things including: women, mothers, wives, sisters, friends, [and so on],” he maintains. “Men are cops, lawyers, firefighters, [and] doctors, [for example]. The result of this is that when the career is taken away from a man he feels emptier because the thing that previously defined him is gone and so he no longer knows ‘what’ he is. Women also leave their jobs, but they have all of the previously mentioned roles to replace the one they played at work.”

Women also tend to take better care of themselves and age in a healthier way than men, Black adds, adding to their quality of life for a longer period of time.

Social support is another factor which may play a role in the slight gender gap, he notes. “Women are much better at starting, nurturing and maintaining friendships than men,” Black says. “When men leave work and their co-workers behind, they find themselves with no, or very few, friends. Women on the other hand, have made friends in various ways and have stayed in touch so that when they leave work they are more likely to have many friends to lean on and spend time with.”

Common life stage challenges and gender differences notwithstanding, Lyubansky also notes the individual qualities that each person exhibits when it comes to levels of happiness.

“While environment and circumstances matter in terms of basic necessities, once those basic needs—for food, shelter, and security—are met, happiness is mostly determined by two different internal, not environmental, processes: our genetic programming and our internal way of making sense of our reality,” he explains.

Each person relates to life events differently, whether it is becoming a parent, getting a job, or losing a job.

“While getting laid off work is not likely to make anyone happy, some people will blame themselves while others will attribute it to the bad economy,” Lyubansky explains. “Similarly, some will see it as a temporary setback while others will be prone to catastrophize.  Still others will see it as an opportunity to pursue a different line of work or some other interest that they've always had.”

Citing colleague and positive psychology expert Ed Diener, PhD, Lyubansky says happiness set-point is also a factor.

“Diener's research that shows that people tend to have a set-point of happiness to which they eventually return after having a positive or negative experience supports this notion,” he explains. “I think that different generations may have different expectations for their life and different ways of making meaning out of their reality.”

The Gallup results may say as much about the American notion of happiness within our cultural context as it does about whether Americans are truly happy or not, notes Lyubansky. “Many Americans expect to be happy, “he adds. “It is part of our socialization, so much so that many people may reflexively report being happy, even when they're not—like when someone asks us ‘How are you?’ or may deliberately lie about being happy when they're not to avoid the possibility of being perceived negatively by the interviewer.”


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