Sunday, April 27, 2008

Are the oldest Americans the "happiest Americans"?

The Associated Press recently reported on an academic study that concludes that "the oldest Americans are the happiest Americans." The study was conducted by a University of Chicago sociologist, Yang Yang, who claims that her research shows that "life gets better in one's perception as one ages." That's because, she says, older people generally have learned to be more content with what they have than younger adults.

The idea that with age comes happiness is supported by a Duke University social scientist, Linda George, who was not involved in the University of Chicago study. AP describes her as "an aging expert." I don't know how old she is.

People tend to think, George says, that "late life is far from the best stage of life, and they don't look forward to it." That dismal view, George claims, should be discarded because of the new research finding that old people are the happiest people.

The University of Chicago study was conducted over a period from 1972 to 2004. Its findings are based on periodic face-to-face interviews with what is described as a nationally representative sample of about 28,000 people, ranging in age from 18 to 88. I don't know how the study handled the issue of widespread depression among elderly people.

Maybe I'm just an 83-year old sourpuss, but I'm highly skeptical about being told categorically that old people are the happiest people in America. I'm also a onetime graduate sociology student (circa 1948), and I'm dubious about grand conclusions that are based on limited but supposedly representative samples.

I've always questioned the validity of social science research that treats so many emotional or psychological matters quantitatively as if they are mathematically measurable. I don't believe that the degree of one's personal happiness can be statistically stated. I wish that I could agree with the Chicago study's finding. In all candor, however, I think its conclusion is nonsense.

How can one generalize on the matter of happiness? I certainly do not enjoy the kind of personal happiness that the University of Chicago researcher claims she found among elderly people. I've had my aortic heart valve and right hip replaced, and I have survived prostate cancer. And, of course, I suffer the general aches and pains that come with geriatric territory and that limit my physical activities.

The best that I can say about my degree of happiness is that I am content with my lot in life. If I had been included in the Chicago study, I would probably have been simply described as "not unhappy."

That is pretty much how I would describe the state of mind of most of the many older people I know. I live among legions of senior citizens. My wife and I live in so-called active adult communities in New Jersey and Florida. One community has about 1,750 homes, the other about 950. Residence is restricted to people who are at least 55 years old and to younger spouses.

The degree of one's happiness, of course, depends on personal circumstances--the state of a person's health, how active is the person's social life, and the nature of a person's family relationships. I am confident that most of my fellow residents would scoff at the simplistic notion that age comes with happiness.

If it were only so!



Blogger joared said...

Very astute observations. I, too, have great difficulty with the measuring of happiness by those who would quantify it. You certainly summed up accurately for me the " of one's happiness..." and the circumstances upon which it depends.

I must say, however, for me and those I know, we are more than content with our elder lives. I have found happiness to a degree in a different way I've never known before that would place me in those studies happy elder category.

You've touched on a sore point with me relative to so many studies, quantifications and conclusions which are thrust upon us all as though they had validity. We should be quite skeptical of their conclusions.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008 1:44:00 PM  
Blogger Ginnie said...

I, too, am more content now than I have ever been. I'm sure it has to do with accepting what I have instead of wanting what I don't have...but I think the big thing is the state of a person's health. If I can keep myself relatively healthy I can find many degrees of happiness.

Sunday, May 04, 2008 4:46:00 PM  
Blogger Dorothy said...

I consider this wishful thinking. And I wonder who the sample they are referring too. Most seniors are tired and concerned with their futures. We are accepting of our lives however, that is a far cry from happy as to how things are going today. I feel a sadness for our children's futures. We are in a world which appears to be self destructing how encouraging is that? How long before its too late..and what will the future hold for them?

Dorothy from grammology
remember to call gram

Sunday, May 11, 2008 3:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Ashton Applewhite said...

interesting post & comments; thanks. I posted about this study on my blog, which is a book-in-progress about people over 80 in the workforce: . critique and comments welcome, and I'll keep an eye on what you're up to.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008 1:51:00 PM  
Anonymous ...liz said...

Interesting study, and I shall now have to look for the specifics of Yang Yang's research. When you mention Yang stating that older people are more content with what they have, obviously we're talking material here. So many articles and studies in print recently appear inconclusive in that a picture of this vibrant aging population is being painted and the reality most of us live in isn't all that.

Friday, August 15, 2008 8:49:00 AM  

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