In fact, individual temperament is still the best predictor of happiness overall, Wood says. A child who is always smiling will likely be joyful decades later. The grumpy 30-year-old will likely be a grumpy, if slightly less so, 70-year-old.
A pleasant surprise
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Why does the idea of being most happy in old age come as a shock to young and old alike? Psychological science has a reason for that too. We humans are terrible at predicting what will make us happy.
Younger people tend to think that happiness is getting what you want: a fabulous body, great job, true love, a nice place to live and a good ride. No one should dismiss the hopeful dreams of the young, but it's just not that simple, Wood says.
"We try to make decisions that make us happy, but we're not good at doing that," she says.
Well-known research shows that a sudden increase in wealth doesn't correlate to long-term gains in happiness, and people who become paralyzed due to accidents return from despair to their previous levels of happiness. Parents assume they will be bereft when the kids leave home, but happiness and marital satisfaction typically improve.
Aging too falls into that puzzling category in which reality often defies expectations.
"Why is it that when we think of age, we think about all the bad things that will happen?" says Dr. Peter Ubel, director of the Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan, who has studied happiness among ill and older people. "That is one of the reasons we don't anticipate happiness in aging very well."
Until recently, psychological study focused almost solely on life's negatives: bad behavior, troubled relationships, depression and stress. Today, researchers are also studying so-called positive psychology -- those factors that help people thrive mentally and emotionally.
The study of elder happiness has been a fruitful foray in positive psychology, experts say, showing that older people are happier if they stay socially connected, pursue new experiences and do things that make them feel useful.
Young can benefit too
Such research offers lessons for younger people as well. Teaching adolescents and young adults about the joys of volunteer work and community service may pry them from the self-centeredness that contemporary society reinforces, Emmons says.
"We live in a culture where people expect certain entitlements; 'I'm owed these things,' or 'I deserve these things,' " Emmons says. "It goes against the spirit of having a sense of purpose and being useful."
Similarly, teaching a child to count his or her blessings might place that child on an elevated happiness trajectory that persists throughout life, he suggests.
The rare younger people who experience the rich happiness common to their elders may be those who have recovered from life-threatening illness or addiction, Carstensen says. She cites research that shows people often feel differently about their lives after surviving a serious illness. They have come face-to-face with the "shrinking time horizon" that older people routinely live with.
"As people come to appreciate the fragility of life, they tend to put more value on it," she says. "There is something about recognizing our own mortality."
Combining the mental shrewdness of youth with the ability to savor life might be a successful recipe for contented living -- whatever one's age.
"If only younger people could step out of themselves and focus on the positive and realize life is fragile and life is valuable," Carstensen says. "And if older people could think about the future and worry a little bit more, that's probably good."
For example, elderly people may be too trusting. They are the most likely to be victims of financial scams, and they may make bad healthcare or financial decisions because they fail to think critically through the pros and cons of a situation.
Freedom to grow old
Elders will probably always have the last laugh, Carstensen says. Young people typically don't have the freedom to be as choosy about their activities and relationships. They have to show deference to the professor, please the boss, network with business acquaintances, discipline the toddler and beg the banker for a mortgage.
"That is what goes on in youth," she says. "Younger people have to prepare for a long, nebulous future. That is anxiety-producing. I'm not sure it would be adaptive for young people to say, 'I'm not going to worry about the future,' because you do have to worry about the future.' "
As people age, they are gradually relieved of the burden of planning for the future, she notes.
In the words of the psychologically astute British poet Robert Browning: "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, The last of life, for which the first was made."
More information, news and research on happiness and aging can be found at these sites:
- Stanford Center on Longevity
- University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center
- University of Michigan Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine
- American Psychological Assn.