Happiness on the horizon

Old age really is golden, says sociologist Yang Yang, who finds that for most Americans, the best days are yet to come.

By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04

Photography by Dan Dry

"I look forward to getting older,” says 34-year-old sociologist and demographer Yang Yang. In youth-obsessed America, with its nightmares about dwindling health and its multibillion-dollar anti-aging industry, Yang is in the minority.

IMAGE: Yang Yang
Age, Yang says, offers confidence and contentment.

But birthdays need not be the dark harbingers that many make them out to be. Yang’s research finds older Americans significantly happier with their everyday lives than their younger counterparts. Analyzing 33 years of data from the General Social Survey (GSS), an ongoing poll of American attitudes conducted by the University-based National Opinion Research Center (NORC), Yang gauged life satisfaction by age, socioeconomic group, and generation. The country’s most extensive dataset on happiness, the GSS measures contentment by asking sample groups of 1,500 to 3,000 adults the following question: “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”

When Yang analyzed survey responses from 1972 to 2004, she discovered that adults’ probability of being “very happy” increased roughly 5 percent with every ten years over the entire adult life. “With age,” she says, “comes happiness.”

The findings, published last year in the American Sociological Review, weren’t what Yang expected. For one thing, physical disability and increasing frailty are only part of the aging story. Although good health plays a key role in quality of life, Yang says, its absence doesn’t necessarily preclude happiness. (The GSS results echo her previous research that indicates many adults experience contentment even in the face of chronic disability.) Years, Yang says, can offer greater maturity, self-esteem, and insight. These factors play a role in perceived quality of life and can make aging “a tremendously positive experience.” Or it could be, she says, that greater contentment among older adults reflects a “selective survival” whereby happier people live longer, thus raising the average happiness level with age.

The first in-depth study to examine generational effects on happiness, Yang’s analysis also investigated whether one’s generation, or birth cohort, affects well-being. Raised in China’s Sichuan province when it was the country’s most populous area, she grew up keenly aware of how population structure shapes daily life. In high school, Yang spent five days a week taking practice tests for the national college entrance exam, a standard routine for students hoping to snag a spot at one of China’s few universities. With so many people and so few openings—only one in ten among Yang’s Sichuan peers would be admitted—fierce competition dictated how local teens used their time. Yang got into Beijing University, where she majored in Chinese language and literature before going on to study population and aging as a sociology doctoral student at Duke University. The emphasis on studying, she notes, “kept typical teenage problems, as they are found in the U.S., at bay.”

Yet population-fueled competition can also have deleterious effects on a generation. Yang found that U.S. happiness levels remained relatively unchanged from one generation to the next, with one exception: the baby boomers. Members of this generation, born roughly between 1945 and 1960, showed the lowest probability of being “very happy” out of any birth group, a finding she attributes in part to the boomers’ record size. The larger the cohort, she says, the greater the competition for higher education and, later on, professional success. Therefore, although members of every generation strive to meet or exceed their parents’ standard of living, the baby boomers would have felt even more pressure. “There’s exceeding discrepancy between their aspiration and their reality,” says Yang, a gap that takes its toll on overall happiness.

Of course, not everyone in a given cohort follows the same trajectory. Yang, a research associate at NORC’s Population Research Center and its Center on the Demography and Economics of Aging, analyzed the GSS data further to parse happiness trends over time by gender, race, and education level. She found women, whites, and college graduates were, on average, likely to be happier than men, blacks, and those with less education. Having a college degree, for example, increased one’s chance of being “very happy” by roughly 37 percent, while being black diminished it by more than 50 percent. Gender differences were less pronounced. Women consistently averaged more contentment than men at all ages, but the gender gap began to shrink during old age, possibly an effect of widowhood, which typically strikes women more than men.

Across individuals’ lifetimes, other disparities in happiness also narrow. The reason, says Yang, may be a “leveling” process that occurs with aging. Whereas groups like whites and college graduates typically start off adulthood with better job opportunities, health care, and other advantages, some resources among different groups tend to even out with age. Regardless of one’s social strata, for example, retirement, Medicare, and Social Security eventually reduce some of the inequality in income and medical expenses.

On the whole, the likelihood of being happy in America hasn’t changed much in recent decades. Examining the probability of being “very happy” across all ages and birth cohorts included in the GSS dataset, Yang found only slight ups and downs in average happiness between 1972 and 2004. Although satisfaction levels rose during national economic upswings such as in 1995, variations over time never exceeded 5 percent. This stability, says Yang, suggests that individuals may be affected by changing financial climates, but they are also resilient. “People find ways to remain happy,” she says. “It’s almost like a homeostatic thing.”

Her findings have made Yang “infinitely more optimistic” about her own future. As America grows older, she sees her work—her current project examines how biological measures of aging and frailty vary by sex and social status—as an opportunity to help guide public policy. What she discovers, says Yang, may “provide clues to avenues for achieving longer and healthier lives” for all Americans.

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