People are happier and have better mental health as they age, a new study has found. This is great news for those of us in our twenties who are stressing out and don't know where our lives are going - better things will happen!
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Previous research also found that we enjoy life more as we age, something called "ageing paradox," considering that older age means an onslaught of disease and frailty. The new findings show that it happens steadily throughout our entire lives.
A team from the University of California, San Diego, looked at the physical and mental health of over 1,500 adults who were randomly selected from San Diego County. The participants had a wide age range - from 21 to 100 years old. They questioned how happy they were with life, how much stress they had, anxiety, and depression. The older people appeared to have a better overall score.
"Their improved sense of psychological well-being was linear and substantial," said one of the team, geriatric neuropsychiatrist Dilip Jeste. "Participants reported that they felt better about themselves and their lives year upon year, decade after decade."
Younger participants in the study showed higher signs of stress, more symptoms of depression, and much more anxiety. Those between 20 and 30 had the toughest time.
"This 'fountain of youth' period is associated with far worse levels of psychological well-being than any other period of adulthood," said Jeste.
Many might assume that as we get older and sicker, we start to become more depressed because of the struggles, but research shows that isn't the case.
"Some investigators have reported a U-shaped curve of well-being across the lifespan, with declines from early adulthood to middle age followed by an improvement in later adulthood," Jeste said. "The nadir of mental health in this model occurs during middle age, roughly 45 to 55. However, we did not find such a mid-life dip in well-being."
Instead, the data Jeste's team collected showed that "the possibility of a linear improvement in mental health beginning in young adulthood," they report in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
It isn't all good news, however. Older participants did show that they had worse cognitive and physical abilities than the younger people in the study.
So why are they so happy?
Researchers believe that the answer could be that we focus on different things as we age.
"When people face endings they tend to shift from goals about exploration and expanding horizons to ones about savouring relationships and focusing on meaningful activities," ageing researcher Laura Carstensen from the Stanford Centre on Longevity, who wasn't involved with the study, told Deborah Netburn at the Los Angeles Times. "When you focus on emotionally meaningful goals, life gets better, you feel better, and the negative emotions become less frequent and more fleeting when they occur."
Jester also suggest that we just become better at regulating ourselves as we age.
We learn, he says, "not to sweat out the little things. And a lot of previously big things become little."
Of course, this is just a snapshot of people in a specific place at a specific time. In order to get a true result, you'd have to do a longitudinal study of the same people for years. There is no doubt that the current political, environmental, and financial stressors added to the younger generation's stress and anxiety.
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"There's lots of speculation about why older people are happier and having better moods even when their cognitive and physical health is in decline, but we still don't have anything that fully explains what is going on," psychologist Arthur Stone from the USC Dornsife Centre for Self-Report Science, who wasn't part of the research, told the Los Angeles Times. "It's a big puzzle, and an important puzzle."