Happiness is Being Senior

The stereotype of the senior citizen as isolated and unhappy has been shattered by two recent studies. The first, conducted by staff at the University of Chicago, revealed that elderly people often are more socially connected than folks in their 50s and 60s. The second study, based on data from the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, found that most Americans actually get happier as they grow older.

“That stereotypical image of the isolated elderly really falls apart when we broaden our conception of what social connectedness is,” said Benjamin Cornwell, lead author of the University of Chicago study, which was published in the April 2008 issue of the American Sociological Review. “In our study, we looked at other forms of social involvement as well and found that older adults are more socially engaged in the community than we thought.”

In fact, the research revealed that roughly three-quarters of adults ages 57 to 85 interact with neighbors, attend religious services, volunteer or go to at meetings of organized groups on at least a weekly basis. Surprisingly, the data showed that people in their 80s were twice as likely as those in their 50s to engage in these activities.

The study’s authors hypothesize that although older Americans may have fewer intimate social relationships, they balance this out by becoming more socially involved with the community as a whole.

“The new image of the older American is this: Far from being helpless isolates, they are actually extraordinary, adaptive creatures,” Cornwell said. “Not only are older adults exceptionally adaptive to social loss, but we speculate that they may also be more proactive than younger adults in establishing ties to the community.”

Also published in the April 2008 issue of the American Sociological Review is the study on happiness, “Social Inequalities in Happiness in the United States, 1972-2004: An Age-Period-Cohort Analysis.”

With thousands of subjects queried in face-to-face interviews each year for this three-plus-decade study, it’s considered one of the most solid examinations of happiness in America — and it concludes that people grow happier with age.

The study tapped people from vast age groups and ethnic backgrounds, finding that the difference in happiness levels among racial groups tends to narrow as people age, and they all grow happier.

The researchers report this finding runs parallel to the “age as maturity hypothesis,” which states that age brings about more positive personal traits, such as growing self-esteem and self-acceptance.

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