Sunday, January 15, 2006

happiness and self-esteem in age

A 1975 national poll conducted by Louis Harris and Associates for the National Council on Aging produced conclusive evidence that the American public looks on age as a deprived time of life. (The Harris Polls are classics and have not been repeated in recent years but the data is still valid.) The majority of Americans see age as a time of low income, ill health, loneliness, and boredom. Recognized figures, like the distinguished French writer Simone de Beauvoir, have observed that people view age with aversion, and much of the research on aging concentrates on decline rather than the positive aspects of being old.
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn of studies about happiness and self-esteem that show that age is a period of richness of spirit, and that it may in fact be the greatest time of contentment in life. One source of evidence for this statement is the General Social Survey, a national poll of public opinion carried out annually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.
The General Social Survey question about happiness is addressed to a scientifically selected representative sample of Americans living in the general community (people in the army, hospitals, nursing homes, and jails are not surveyed), and asks: Taken altogether, how would you say things are these days-would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy. While someone might wonder if a question this simple can accurately report the feelings of the American public, research using more elaborate and philosophically worded types of questions does not change the overall picture of how Americans respond when asked about their happiness.
The results, which appear as percentages in the table below, show that the largest proportion of persons at every age describe themselves as "pretty happy."

The percentages of people who describe themselves as "pretty happy," however, are highest among the younger age groups-up to age 44 at least 55 percent describe themselves in terms of this category. By comparison, the age groups from 55 and up stand at 50 percent or less. This suggests that one needs to look at the other columns to see if differences between age groups show up there also.
When one looks at the first column-the "very happy" column--one discovers an astonishing difference between the groups the highest percentages of "very happy" persons appear among the seniors. In fact, the peak of happiness comes at age 65-74, and the low point comes at age 18-24.
Doesn't this suggest that the American public is wrong? What one sees in this table is that older people on the whole are just about as happy as everyone else, and that they may even be happier than people at earlier ages of life.
To test the general observation that old people are as happy as anyone else, look at the last column, the one labelled "not too happy." Here one notices that the percentages of people who say that they are "not too happy" are quite low at all ages, clustering around 13 percent. This tells us that the great majority of Americans (about 85 percent or more) do not see themselves as being "not too happy."
Besides this, the range of differences between the age groups is small-less than 5 percent. This means that Americans at all ages are quite alike when it comes to this quality. Contrary to what one might expect if the general opinion were true-that the old were lonely, bored, etc.--one sees here that there is no major increase in the proportion of "not too happy" people as age advances.
Notice, too, that the age groups from 45 to 84 are practically identical. There is scarcely any difference among them, and, in fact, only one-tenth of 1 percent more of the population aged 75-84 says it is "not too happy" than the middle aged group of 45-54-year-olds.
Finally, when one compares the percentage of "not too happy" people over age 85 with the other age groups, one sees that they most closely resemble the 18-24 year olds. The percentages here are 15.4 for the 85 and 14.3 for the young people 18-24. Only 1.1 percent separates these two groups, so for all practical purposes they are alike. Add to this the fact that 6 percent more of the 85 population in column reports itself as "very happy" as compared to the 18-24 year olds and you have an even more remarkable picture.
One can conclude, then, that the American public has been laboring under a misapprehension about the state of mind of the older population. Contrary to being bored and lonely, the majority are as happy as anyone else, some are even happier, and only a small proportion is not happy. How can we explain this unexpected truth? Another study supplies the answer: Older people are more composed and at ease with themselves than the young. As a result, they are quite happy on the whole-far more so than we might expect. This other study was also a national survey
of a sample of the American population.
The survey in this case was an adjective checklist that consisted of a series of descriptive words; individuals were asked to select which of the words applied to themselves. The respondents went through the list and checked each word that applied to them. How did the older population describe itself in comparison to the younger population? First, the old thought of themselves as competent-they chose adjectives like hardworking, well-organized, tough, strong, intelligent, and able to get things done when describing themselves-and they chose these terms more often than the young did. Surprisingly, the young were more likely than the old to describe themselves as absentminded, lazy, restless, and disorderly. The old also had a greater sense of self-control, self-reliance, and independence. Second, in social situations the old were less likely to describe themselves as timid, indecisive, and helpless. The young expressed more discomfort in social situations, using terms like shy, nervous, and embarrassed. Third, the young more often used negative terms to describe their inner feelings and behavior toward others-they felt frustrated and vulnerable, manipulative, and were more likely to say that they misrepresented situations. Overall, the old revealed a greater sense of comfort about life, about other people, and concerning themselves. They felt more effective in achieving their goals. In another study, Carol Ryff, psychologist specializing in the field of aging at the University of Wisconsin, held interviews with 171 adults and elderly to determine how these individuals defined psychological wellbeing among their age groups. When reporting her interview results, Ryff observed:
More interesting ... were older people's frequent reports that they were not really unhappy about anything and were not interested in changing their present lives. This rather optimistic assessment underscores the growing evidence that old age is not a time of great unhappiness, dissatisfaction, low self-esteem, or low morale.
Further, Ryff found that her middle-aged and elderly subjects both emphasized having an "others orientation" as part of their definition of well-being-that is, of being caring and compassionate, and of having good relationships with other people. When defining well-being, middle-aged people were more likely to stress self-confidence, self-acceptance, and self-knowledge, whereas older people considered acceptance of change and positive functioning as important. Both groups also considered having a sense of humor and enjoyment of life as good indicators of wellbeing. The studies reported here are only a few among many that are beginning to document a generally happy and affirmative state of mind among older people. It is not that older people do not have difficulties-they certainly do, and ill health is one of the more prominent. These studies, however, show that the disposition of older people is positive. Americans need not fear the aging process. Rather, if they reach out and grasp age firmly with the intent to live it well, they have an excellent chance to achieve success.
Breytspraak, L. The Development of the Self in Later Life. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1984.
Russell, C. H. Good News About Aging. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1989.
Russell, C. H., and Megaard, I. The General Social Survey, 1972-1986: The State of the American People. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1988.
Ryff, C. D. "In the Eye of the Beholder: Views of Psychological Well-Being Among Middle- Aged and Older Adults." Psychology and Aging. Vol. 4: 2, 195-210, 1989.


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