Predicting Happiness in Our Oldest Years

Happiness is believed to stem partly from comparison of one’s current situation relative to past achievements. Very little is known about happiness and its impact on outlook on life and self-reported health in people living to 100 years. As we are living longer, understanding what impacts happiness and life satisfaction has implications toward improving quality of life.

Researchers recruited 158 centenarians from the Georgia Centenarian Study and interviewed them using standard measures of happiness, past life satisfaction, subjective health, social resources, and economic security. A model of happiness in oldest age was developed showing paths of relationships among these measures.

Past life satisfaction (i.e., “As I look back on my life, I am fairly well satisfied”) was a predictor of subjective health, happiness, and economic security. The more someone was satisfied looking back on their life, the more positive the perceptions of health, happiness, and economic security.

Economic security also directly predicted subjective health. Centenarians generally feel less stressed by economic challenges. There are two possible explanations for this finding. According to a newer developmental theory of aging, gerotranscendence, those at very advanced age may view economic security as “having enough for the necessities of life, but not more.” Another possibility is that many centenarians maintain a positive outlook about their health, as they have remained relatively healthy all of their lives and thereby have not faced financial challenges associated with poor health.

Findings of this study also support the adage “money can’t buy happiness,” as economic security was not a direct predictor of happiness. Satisfaction with life in the past was a strong predictor of happiness. Older adults who viewed their lives as successes expressed greater contentment about their lives in the past and present. Recalling past accomplishments helped to reaffirm and maintain positive perceptions about their current situation and health status in many cases.

For health professionals, results of this study support life review programs that foster feelings of happiness among older adults. For researchers, future studies may focus on identifying past life experiences that influence happiness and perceived health and explore how life stages of older adults may shape happiness.

Source: Bishop, A., Martin, P., MacDonald, M., Poon, L. (2010). Predicting happiness among centenarians. Gerontology, 56: 88-92.

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