When you imagine happiness in an adult, the first picture that pops to mind might be a 25-year-old basking in the glow of youth, health, and beauty.

Yet research suggests that a beaming 65-year-old might be a more accurate image of happiness.

In study after study, older adults report having more positive emotions and fewer negative ones than younger adults do. At first blush, that might seem a bit counterintuitive.

After all, the older we get, the more losses and disappointments we’ve racked up, and the more likely we are to have a chronic disease or disabling condition.

Older, Wiser, and Happier?

Many researchers believe that decades of practice have taught older adults crucial skills that help them manage their emotions for the better. However, a recent article in Perspectives on Psychological Science points out that the relationship between age and happiness is complex and still not well understood.

For example, do older adults choose happiness? Do they choose to have sunnier thoughts, which in turn lead to happier feelings? Or are they forced into simpler, happier thinking by age-related declines in mental sharpness?

Researchers are still sorting out all the reasons for an age gap in happiness.

Here’s what they’ve discovered so far about differences in how older adults tend to view the world, compared to their younger counterparts.

happinessMaking Happiness a Priority

Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen developed one influential explanation, called socioemotional selectivity theory. According to this theory, older people’s realization that they don’t have endless time left leads them to be more selective about how they spend it. As a result, they may invest more time and energy in activities that they know will be emotionally rewarding and bring them happiness.

For instance, older adults may prune their social circle, cutting back on unsatisfying relationships to focus on rewarding ones. But selectivity also has its downside: seniors may be less willing to give new, untested relationships a try.

Looking on the Bright—and Realistic—Side of Happiness

Many studies have found that older adults are biased toward positive over negative information when it comes to attention and memory. Shown pictures of faces or scenarios, for example, they tend to focus on and remember the happier ones more. Psychologists refer to this as the positivity effect.

Finally, the happiest older adults may have learned how to cut themselves some slack. One recent study in Health Psychology followed 135 people over age 60 for six years. When confronted with declining ability to do everyday activities, those who were able to give up unattainable goals were less likely to become depressed.

Of course, there are innumerable factors besides age that affect individual happiness.

Clearly, all 60-year-olds aren’t contented, just as all 20-year-olds aren’t malcontents. But when it comes to knowing how to make yourself happy, having a lifetime of experience behind you may offer a distinct advantage.

Linda Wasmer Andrews

Linda Wasmer Andrews  

Linda is a journalist and author with a master’s degree in psychology and an inexhaustible fascination with learning new stuff.

Since 1982, she has written a host of articles (she lost track of exactly how many somewhere around 3,000) and authored or coauthored 14 books. Much of her writing focuses on factors that foster health and well-being – things such as diet, exercise, sleep, social support, stress relief, and happiness.