Why Are Older Adults So Happy?

Their bodies and minds are slowly deteriorating, yet research consistently finds that older adults say they’re happier on average than people half their age. So, what gives?

As it turns out, researchers have been wondering the same thing for years, and some interesting findings published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology late last year provide some insight into how older adults do it.

Although the researchers don’t state this explicitly, findings from their study call into question the timeless recommendation suggesting we should “turn that frown upside down!”

You know, that phrase you probably heard as a child—often spoken by an adult wearing a toothy grin trying to impress upon you the belief that we, as human beings, possess the innate ability to create a positive internal state by externally masking the experience of a less than positive one.

Easy enough to do, right? But does it really make us happier people over time and into old age? Is the remedy for sadness, melancholy, and the experience of painful life events to indeed “just put on a happy face”?

Research findings suggest otherwise. Explicitly, the authors found that acceptance of negative aspects of life was the variable which connected (“mediated” in statistical speak) the positive relationship between aging and general happiness that is present in so much published research.

In other words, these findings suggest that the road to contentment may in fact be paradoxically paved with contemplation and acceptance of the things which make us unhappy. That we might benefit from contemplating some of the more unsavory aspects of life once in a while—like death. Yes, that’s right, death.

And although the researchers don’t say this in their study, I have a feeling they wouldn’t object to my personal recommendation that we not do this while wearing a happy face—because you don’t need a PhD to know that would just be creepy.


Shallcross AJ, Ford BQ, Floerke VA, et al. Getting better with age: The relationship between age, acceptance, and negative affect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2013); 104: 734–749.


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