Obama at 50: Older, Wiser … Happier?

How the study of happiness is changing our understanding of aging.

Happy birthday, Mr. President

This has been a tough week for Barack Obama. There was the tension of a down-to-the-wire debt deal, and on top of that, he turns 50 on Thursday. But while Obama may not see his birthday Thursday as cause for celebration, social scientists suggest there may be something magical in that landmark. The growing body of research on happiness shows that as we pass middle age, our sense of well-being improves. Take the 2010 study that looked at more than 340,000 Americans and found that self-reported levels of anger, stress, and worry plummet at 50 and that a few years later, happiness rises. This pattern held true for men and women, married and unmarried, the working and the jobless—and, presumably, for presidents, too.  

The exact age at which the shift happens is a matter of some dispute. A study that Slatewrote about in 2007 found 45 to be the average pivot point among Americans and Europeans. (The same study found that for some reason, the age at which happiness increases varies by country. Things start to look up after age 42 in South Africa, whereas Ukrainians have to wait till they pass 62.) But whatever the exact timing, the fact of this mood swing feels counterintuitive: As we near decrepitude, should we not feel gloomier? Our friends are dying, our knees are giving out. What’s so great about getting old?

Despite the recent popularity of happiness studies among economists, psychologists, and other social scientists, the cause of the correlation between age and happiness remains somewhat mysterious. Psychiatry professor Arthur Stone of Stony Brook University, who helmed the 2010 study that named age 50 as an emotional turning point, initially figured environmental factors might account for his results. Shouldn’t people’s growing happiness in their 50s, 60s, and 70s have something to do with the joy of retiring? Or “maybe it’s kids going out of the house that changes people’s well-being, reduces their stress,” Stone told me he had theorized. But when he and colleagues controlled for these and other likely outside factors, the results stayed the same. So what was causing this shift in well-being?

“I don’t think that we actually know,” Stone said.

Laura Carstensen, a Stanford psychology professor and longtime expert in the study of aging and happiness, believes she does. For decades she has been working on something she calls the theory of socioemotional selectivity. As young adults, she says, we “have to bank a lot of experiences,” investing in things that may be unpleasant, but that we hope will reap rewards in the future. We might go to a networking conference in hopes of getting a better job. We might take organic chemistry because we’re considering medical school. We might go on a blind date. As we become older, we accept that there’s less time left to realize payoff from such investments, so we’re less likely to make them.

 “When time horizons are relatively short, people prioritize emotionally meaningful goals,” Carstensen said. In other words, we spend time with people we already know we like, or we take a class in beer-making, and we find our days richer and more meaningful as a result.

It may also be that the very texture of our emotions change—that what we describe as happiness shifts over time. A study out of the University of Pennsylvania, analyzing the emotional content of millions of blog posts, suggests that as we age we actually appear to change our definition of happiness, associating it more with peacefulness and less with excitement. Carstensen and her colleagues have conducted studies in which they ask subjects to carry beepers and record their emotions when those beepers go off, at five random times each day over a week. This research has given her a treasure trove of insights into people’s moment-to-moment emotions, recorded faithfully in real time. She’s found that younger people are more likely to experience pure, unalloyed happiness or sadness, whereas older people  are more likely to experience sadness and happiness mixed together.

Carstensen believes that the ability to feel happiness and sadness at the same time has to do with an increasing awareness of life’s fragility. “You look at your wife of 60 years and she smiles at you and you smile back, and you know that she’s got cancer. And it’s a beautiful moment,” she said. “But you know it’s not going to go on forever.” Carstensen theorizes that this more nuanced state makes older people mentally healthier. They stay on an even keel, emotionally speaking, instead of careening between moods the way younger people do. And there is other evidence that older people are better at regulating their emotions: Various studies find that older adults selectively focus on positive images and memories more than younger people do.

Taken together, these reports suggest that the key to happiness may not be changing one’s circumstances but changing one’s expectations.  As we age, it appears, we aspire to moderation rather than thrills, we notice the silver lining, we temper our highs and lows, and we seek fulfillment in the moment. With age comes pragmatism—instead of remaking the world, we remake our impressions of it.

And yet the study of well-being is marvelously complicated. Different scholars define the very notion of “well-being” differently and use different methods to measure it, with some asking subjects broad questions like “How happy are you with your life?,” and others trying to gauge the answer with moment-by-moment measurements. This leads to all sorts of disputes, among them a debate about whether young people are happy at all. While some economists believe that well-being follows a U-shape, with people’s highest levels of happiness coming at the beginning and later stretches of adulthood and their lowest levels in the middle, Carstensen, using different methods, finds that early adulthood is not a particularly good time. She hypothesizes that young people may think they’re supposed to be happy and may therefore say that they are, even as more careful study of their emotions suggests they’re not really happy. Confused yet?

What is clear from the preponderance of studies, though, is that the compensation for crummy eyesight is rose-colored glasses. Some scholars, pondering the well-being of older people, have begun to wonder whether this facility at regulating emotions might contribute to another ineffable attribute: wisdom. A study out of the University of Michigan presented subjects with sociopolitical conflicts—ethnic tensions in Djibouti, for instance—and found that older people were better at seeing others’ points of view, grasping nuanced issues and forging compromise. The young may have all the idealism, but the old seem better equipped to actually fix the world.

All of which brings us back, reluctantly, to the president and another kind of sociopolitical conflict, one marked by a prolonged inability to compromise. Against the backdrop of the debt-ceiling drama, it’s worth wondering whether Congress could use a few more old fogeys.