Many seniors are grinning through the golden years

Research indicates happiness increases after age 50

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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photoResidents, from left, Donna Fenter, 81, Denny Barnhard, 85, Lee Brown, 84, and Vi Robison, 83, attend a wine and cheese social hour at Glenwood Place Senior Living, Friday, February 24, 2012.

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photoResident Larry Hayden, 89, dances with activities director Michelle Avdienko during a wine and cheese social hour at Glenwood Place Senior Living on Friday.

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photoResident Maxine Hess, 82, moves to the rhythm of live music at a wine and cheese social hour at Vancouver’s Glenwood Place Senior Living. Research indicates older people are happier than younger ones. One explanation is Stanford University professor Laura Carstensen’s theory of “socio-emotional selectivity,” the idea that people invest in what makes them happy when time is limited.

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Despite experiencing the death of a spouse, thinning hair and other age-related tribulations, 69-year-old Allen Thayer of Vancouver is generally happier than he was in his younger days.

“I have no idea why,” the retired physician said. “I just live in the moment, and I run every morning.”

Growing old comes with plenty of unpleasantness, from arthritis to loss of loved ones. The trade-off, however, may be a boost in happiness, according to researchers.

Several bodies of research indicate Americans’ happiness climbs after age 50 regardless of income, employment or children. Happiness increases in old age around the globe. At what age happiness builds depends on region and culture.

“Happiness is so subjective, but certainly there is a lot of consistent research that shows people get happier with age,” said Cory Bolkan, assistant professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver.

A recent study involving telephone interviews of 340,847 Americans found a U-bend of happiness as Americans aged, according to research psychologists Arthur Stone, Joseph Schwartz and Joan Broderick. Happiness mounted until age 30, then, took a dive in the 40s, followed by a rebound after 50. People in their 80s scored the highest for happiness.

“It’s interesting because, when asked, people tend to have the perception that most older people are unhappy and that happiness is going to decline with age, but if you ask old people about how they feel, they’re pretty happy,” Bolkan said.

One explanation for this belated gift in life is the “socio-emotional selectivity” theory by Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor and director of the Stanford Center on Longevity. The theory contends that people invest in what is most important to them when time is limited. The phenomenon also is observed in those who have had a terminal disease.

“There is a shift in priorities and goals and what’s important as we age,” Bolkan said. “For older people facing mortality, their goals may be more emotionally focused. Personal relationships and friendships are very important to them. They live in the present moment. All of these things increase happiness.”

Donna Fenter, 81, said she enjoys living at Glenwood Place Retirement Community in Vancouver because of the friendships she’s formed there.

“We have fun all the time, and if you don’t, it’s your own fault,” Fenter said.

“We’re co-conspirators,” Fenter’s friend Denny Barnhart, 85, whispered mischievously. “We’re just a lot of trouble.”

Barnhart, a retired manager of a credit union, said she prefers her life now.

“I was working 10 years ago,” she said. “Now, I have fun.”

Research, including some by Ed Diener, psychology professor at the University of Illinois, also suggests happy people are healthier and live longer. That raises the question of whether older people are happier as an accessory of age or whether happy people simply are more likely to make it into old age.

There’s no definitive answer to that question, Bolkan said.

“It could be possible pessimists die earlier,” Bolkan said. “If they’re dying earlier, we are not going to count them (among the old and happy).”

Another recent study by Derek Isaacowitz, associate professor of psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, found older people focused less on negative images than younger people.

Isaacowitz used eye tracking to find out what participants were looking at when a series of negative and positive images were presented to them. He compared two groups: one with participants between 18 and 25 years old and another 60 and older.

“Older people looked less at negative material,” Isaacowitz said.

Meanwhile, younger people looked at negative material and looked at it for longer than older people. Isaacowitz said he doesn’t know why older people focus less on negativity than younger ones. But even when coached to avoid negative images, younger people continued to look at them, he said.

“One possibility is older people have had different sorts of experiences that may help them learn how to regulate how they feel,” he said. “Younger people may have more around them that they’re curious about. They may engage in emotion by looking at negative material. Older people may regulate their emotions by not looking.”

Not everyone agrees that old age is the happiest time of life.

Florence Moore, 96, of Vancouver said she has been happy all her life, except when she was ill with undiagnosed asthma during her childhood.

“I think you make your own happiness,” Moore said.

Indeed, age is not the lone predictor of happiness. Personality type, health, independence, stress levels and social relationships all influence how happy people may feel, Bolkan said. But regardless of those other factors, the likelihood is people will feel better the older they are, she said.

“The best therapy is age,” Isaacowitz added.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends;

http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.