Some very interesting recent research has produced results about happiness that overturn commonly held assumptions and beliefs on the subject. Have you ever heard that “Money can’t buy happiness.” Or a man or woman of 50 lamenting about having a “mid-life crisis”. How about, “Kids have all the fun.” and “I wish I were 21 again!”
It’s a given that we Americans live in a youth obsessed culture. Most films are action thrillers aimed at young men in their late teens to mid 20’s. Fashions begin with the young and are adopted by older generations. Food and drink products cater to children and teenagers’ tastes. In every area of life, being young is held up as the model to emulate. Billions of dollars are spent every year on cosmetics, clothes, exercise equipment and the nip-and-tuck path to keep us fit, energetic and looking as young as possible. But does that mean we are happy?
During 2009, Gallup conducted a comprehensive national survey based on phone interviews with over 350,000 people across the country. The questions and answers fell into six “happiness” indexes: (As you read them, why not consider your own answers.)
*Life Evaluation: Personal assessment of one’s present life and life in five years on a scale of 1 to 10.
*Emotional Health: Measures a composite of respondents’ daily experiences, including laughter, happiness, worry, anger and stress.
*Work Environment: Measures job satisfaction, ability to use one’s strengths at their workplace and whether one’s supervisor treats him or her more like a boss or a partner.
*Physical Health: Measures chronic diseases, sick days, physical pain, daily energy and other aspects of physical health.
* Healthy Behaviors: Measures smoking, consumption of fruit and vegetables, and exercise.
*Basic Access: Measures basic needs optimal for a healthy life, such as access to food and medicine, having health insurance and feeling safe while walking at night.
The data from the survey is being described by Gallup as the largest database with information concerning Americans’ well-being in existence. There are correlations with location, ranking the 100 cities with the highest Well-Being index. Boulder, Colorado ranked first with Holland, Michigan known for their tulip festival second, and Honolulu in third place. The age of the people interviewed was recorded and produced some of the most surprising results of the survey. Starting at 50 years, there was a sharp rise in the level of happiness that respondents reported. Arthur Stone, the lead author of a study based on the Gallup poll, suggested that changes in brain chemistry as we grow older affect our happiness index. Neuroscientists have shown that in younger adults, the amygdala, the emotional core of the brain, is activated when exposed to negative and positive input. However, adults in their middle and later years appear to have the ability to screen out or lessen negative emotions and “light up” when they see positive images.
The Gallup findings on age matched results from an earlier research study from the Institute on Aging at the University of Wisconsin. The report found that the most anxious years were the 20’s and early 30’s , the time of career development, dating, marriage and raising children. Adolescence and teen years were also more stressful than midlife. “From many points of view, midlife permits many of us to feel on top of the world, in control of our lives, and well enough pleased with what we have accomplished to seek new outlets of both self-expression and giving back to society some of what we have earned and learned.”
The psychologist, Erik Erikson created 8 stages in his classic model of psychosocial development. Stage 7, Middle Adulthood, 35 to 65 years , poses the challenge of Generativity vs. Stagnation. Stage 8, Seniors, 65 years onward face the challenge of Ego Integrity vs. Despair. The research findings from the Gallup and Wisconsin studies on happiness describe men and women in midlife and beyond who continue to grow and feel a sense of wholeness in their selves and their lives. Stage 6, Young Adults, 20 to 34 years cope with the challenge of Intimacy vs. Isolation, reflecting the research findings of higher levels of anxiety and unhappiness during those years.
Pew Research Center conducted a major survey on happiness in 2005, looking at different demographic groups. They found, contrary to the aphorism that money can’t buy happiness, that based on family income, 49% of respondents with an annual family income of more than $100,000 said they were “very happy”. In contrast, only 24% of those with an annual family income of less than $30,000 said they were “very happy”. (One should note that although a correlation is established, it does not prove causation.) Other interesting findings were: Married people , 43% very happy, while unmarried 24% very happy. Married people with children were about as happy as married people without children. Those who worshipped frequently were happier than those who did not; Blacks (28%) were less likely than whites (38%) or Hispanics (34%) to respond as very happy. Sunbelt residents were happier than those who live in the rest of the country. Suburbanites happier than city dwellers. Certain non-correlations: People who had children were no happier than people who did not; Retirees were no happier than workers; Pet owners were no happier than those without pets. The age data showed that the young were less happy than the middle aged or old, in agreement with the 2009 Gallup findings.
The Pew Research Center headlined their findings, “Are we happy yet?” They reminded us that , “Americans have always had a thing about happiness. We all have certain unalienable rights, declares our Declaration of Independence, among them, ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’”