Happiness Matters, Science Proves It

Man and Woman looking at a tablet device

Greek philosopher Aristotle said thousands of years ago: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” That quote is more telling than one might expect. According to eye-opening research, the happiest Americans are the oldest — and older adults are more socially active than the general stereotype suggests when it comes to the elderly, lonely senior.

“The good news is that with age comes happiness,” said Yang Yang, sociologist and author of a University of Chicago study. “Life gets better in one’s perception as one ages.” Mr. Yang’s findings are based on periodic face-to-face interviews with a nationally representative sample of Americans from 1972 to 2004. About 28,000 people aged 18 to 88 took part.

Another study done at the University of Chicago found that approximately 75% of people aged 57 to 85 engage in one or more social activities at least every week. Those include socializing with neighbors, attending religious services, volunteering or going to group meetings. Those in their 80s were twice as likely as those in their 50s to do at least one of these activities. Both studies appear in April’s American Sociological Review.

Study co-author and University of Chicago researcher Benjamin Cornwell said, “People’s social circles do tend to shrink a little as they age — that is mainly where that stereotype comes from, but that image of the isolated elderly really falls apart when we broaden our definition of what social connection is.”

It’s all good news for the aging population. However, Mr. Yang’s study did also find that baby boomers were the least happy of the aging populate. Gleaned from the study results, baby boomers do not appear to be lowering their expectations as generations before them — thinking that retirement means, “having it all”. Lavish trips, cars, homes in warm climates and other expectations without regard for affordability, often takes hold and they continue playing the, “Keeping up with the Joneses” game.

What appears to be a core component in happier seniors is that they find happiness in the simple and seemingly “ordinary” daily activities.  The young often seek special experiences such as travel, events, “things” such as cars and homes. By contrast, content, positive seniors find happiness in the basic experiences of life and often shelve those younger, ego-driven desires for material goods and experiences that they seemingly know, in the long-run, are not what’s important in life.

Older people also benefit emotionally when they feel useful and charitable.  Volunteering, coaching and spending time at religious locations with other members of their community help to “keep them young and useful.” After examining 73 studies on aging, researchers found that volunteering was associated with a lower risk of depression and a higher feeling of well-being among those 50 years and older. They also found health benefits such as greater longevity and better overall health.

More than 7,000 adults in one study found that those with a positive well-being were 47% more likely to consume fresh fruits and vegetables than their less positive counterparts so being happy results in better, smarter and more healthful living. That, in turn, results in healthier older adults. As most of us acknowledge, diets rich in fruits and vegetables have consistently been associated with a range of positive health benefits, including lower risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease. In the same study of 7,000 adults, researchers found that individuals with a positive well-being were 33% more likely to be physically active, with 10 or more hours of physical activity per week. Regular physical activity helps build strong bones, increase energy levels, decrease body fat and lower blood pressure, not to mention releases endorphins, resulting in happier people.

Being happier may also improve sleep habits and practices, which is important for concentration, productivity, exercise performance and maintaining a healthy weight and one study of over 700 adults found that sleep problems, including trouble falling asleep and difficulty staying asleep, were 47% higher in those who reported low levels of positive well-being. Additionally, being happy may also help to reduce stress levels in humans. As higher levels of stress can cause an increase in level of cortisol (hormone that contributes to many of the harmful effects of stress, including disturbed sleep, weight gain, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure) — a number of studies indicate that cortisol levels tend to be lower when people are happier. One study in over 200 adults gave participants a series of stressful lab-based tasks, and found that the cortisol levels in the happiest individuals were 32% lower than for unhappy participants — and these effects appeared to persist over time. When the researchers followed up with the same group of adults three years later, there was a 20% difference in cortisol levels between the happiest and least happy people.

The bottom line is that a happy human often tends to be much healthier for many reasons, as outlined above, compared to unhappy people. While this seems obvious, we all know those people who are typically happy and truly put a positive spin on their lives and others seemingly every day — and those are people that tend to live long, fulfilling lives often surrounded with family — and that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?

Statistics and study info referenced from: How Being Happy Makes You Healthier, Healthline