All too often, older people, and particularly women, are portrayed as sad, lonely or downright cranky. In reality, older people are actually a pretty happy, satisfied bunch. And women tend to be happier than men, despite some of the curveballs that accompany longevity.
Don’t define this demographic with outdated, ageist attitudes, say experts.
“The more we learn about aging, the clearer it becomes that a sweeping downward course is grossly inaccurate,” says Laura Carstensen, professor of psychology and founding director of the Stanford Center for Aging, in a 2011 TED Talk. “Aging brings some rather remarkable improvements — increased knowledge, expertise; and emotional aspects of life improve. Older people are happy. They’re happier than middle-aged people, and younger people, certainly.” She calls it the paradox of aging.
Stress, worry and anger all decrease with age, according to research by Carstensen and other social scientists. Despite the realities that often accompany aging—illness, cognitive decline, mobility, vision and hearing problems, and death of friends or spouses—a survey by Pew Research found that older adults say the negatives they experience are not as bad younger adults assume.
Additionally, the older people get, the younger they feel, relatively speaking. Among adults 65 and older, Pew found fully 60% say they feel younger than their age, compared with 32% who say they feel exactly their age and just 3% who say they feel older than their age. That feeling between chronological and “felt age” widens as people grow older.
To understand happiness, it’s helpful to know it isn’t predictable, or tethered to our objective circumstances, writes Jonathan Rauch in “The Happiness Curve.” He describes a “U-shaped trajectory” of satisfaction that accompanies people throughout life. Happiness is generally high until about our 30s, when it begins declining. It bottoms out somewhere in our 40s or 50s. Then, the fog slowly begins lifting. “Stress begins falling, and falling steeply, a decade or more before retirement age.
Additionally, older people register a higher ratio of positive to negative information, which feeds back to support positive emotions,” says Rauch, who excerpted his findings in an “Atlantic” article. We begin to reorient our personal values away from ambition and toward connection and community.
Happiness may even help us live longer. In a study looking at the relationship between happiness and longevity among adults in the U.S., overall happiness was related to longer lives. Those who considered themselves very happy had a 14% lower risk of death compared to those who are not happy—regardless of marital status, socioeconomic status, census division and religious attendance.
“Mental well being and happiness improve, and also things like emotional regulation, empathy and compassion, self reflection,” says Dr. Dilip Jeste, professor of psychiatry and director of the Stein Institute for Research on Aging at UC San Diego. His own studies show the happiness trend may be more linear than u-shaped, but he says the end result is similar: life satisfaction generally increases as we get older.
When it comes to older women in particular, psychologist Mary Pipher points out that happiness is both a skill and a choice. In her book “Women Rowing North,” she describes the transition of middle to older age as a time of emotional growth, appreciation of little pleasures, resilience and more reasonable expectations.
“Most women become increasingly happy after age 55, with their peak happiness toward the very end of life,” Pipher writes. “Women’s happiness ratings were consistently higher than those of men.”
Women don’t have less tragedy in their lives, she says. However, they have better coping skills, and tend to focus on joy. Women are also more likely to have the life skills necessary to enjoy alone time. “One of the secrets of happiness is having a host of activities that we can enjoy when we are alone.”
Pipher says older women are more accepting of themselves and others, and often better at navigating life’s ongoing challenges. “We no longer feel the need to fix everything. We’ll be less constrained by culture and rules. We will discover talents we did not know we had.”
Yet society still stigmatizes older women, says Suzanne Meeks, professor and chair, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville. “Ageism actually affects not just other people’s views of older women, but also older women’s views of themselves and how they behave.” That’s because we live in a culture which says aging is bad, youth is good.
The truth is that with aging, comes a lot of great experiences, and women do better over time, according to Tracie Harrington, director of the Center for Excellence in Aging Services and Long Term Care at the University of Texas, Austin. Women have told her that after about age 40, many of them quit caring what other people thought about their looks, or what they should do, or how they should behave, and started living for themselves. “That can be very powerful and be a huge driver of happiness.”
Harrington’s research focuses on the Mexican American population, where many outdated stereotypes about women still abound, especially those concerning religion and subservience. But these things are absolutely not true, she says. Women are changing religions in their older ages to find something that fits with their belief system, are getting up and leaving their spouses, are taking on new jobs or quitting altogether; they are taking risks. “And they are happier and happier as time goes by.”
There’s a sense of agency, and women, especially different groups of women, say yes, I can be me and I can be happy,” Harrington says. Women are starting new businesses, opening art studios, finding ways to express who they are, the way they feel. They have an outlet to express a part of themselves that they had not been able to express before.
This happiness dividend among older women is not just limited to the United States. Australian researchers followed women for 20 years, assessing their mood and depressive symptoms. These scores decreased significantly as women got older, especially after 50, and continued well beyond age 70.
Women generally have better coping skills and more compassion, according to Jeste. For example, after the death of a spouse, many women actually come into their own, he says, but men find it more difficult to handle life. “The ability to socialize, form friendships, women are much better at that than men.”
This new reality is slowly taking hold. Universities, nonprofits and local programs are finding ways to address the changing needs of older adults and create ad hoc communities.
Baby boomers, particularly women, are such a huge population bubble, that they will change the face of aging, Meeks predicts. “These are people who have different expectations for their lives. We are scrambling as a culture to deal with those changes.”
Her message to older women? “Don’t buy into what the culture may think you should be or do, but to understand that you are who you always were. And you’re just going through the next phase in life, and you should make it right for you.”
Stria sponsor Life Reinvented made “The Truth About Older Women” special editorial series possible.