As I've reported here on Inc.com before, a drumbeat of new studies is showing that being young can be a surprisingly miserable experience. Despite this demographic's comparative good health and energy, it seems that the pressures of setting up a career and family can make the journey through your 20s and 30s less of a pleasure than a slog.
So what should you do if you're one of the young people described in these studies who has found your first decade or two of adulthood pretty disappointing on the happiness front?
Maybe just wait it out.
That's the surprising conclusion of another new study reported recently on the New York Times Well blog. The findings suggest that the simple passing of the years tends to teach people how to be happier.
Who says getting older is a bummer?
Ask my (adorably) cranky father and he'll tell you that getting older is a bummer -- all creaky backs, trifocal lenses, and too many prescriptions. But when the team behind this research contacted 1,546 people between the ages of 21 and 99, they found that despite my dad's undoubtedly accurate assessment of the increasing physical problems of age, elders actually reported being happier than spry youths.
"Older age was, not surprisingly, tied to declines in physical and cognitive function. But it was also associated with higher levels of overall satisfaction, happiness and well-being, and lower levels of anxiety, depression and stress. The older the person, the study found, the better his or her mental health tended to be," says the Times post, summing up the results.
What's going on here?
Why might seniors have overall better mental health? No one knows the answer definitively, but Dilip V. Jeste, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Diego and senior author of the study, has a hypothesis.
"Brain studies show that the amygdala in older people responds less to stressful or negative images than in a younger person," he told the Times. Or to put that in everyday language: "We become wise. Peer pressure loses its sting. Better decision-making, more control of emotions, doing things that are not just for yourself, knowing oneself better, being more studious and yet more decisive."
Not only is that wisdom a pretty big compensation for wonky knees and worsening eyesight, but it also suggests that there are plenty of attitudes and skills people of any age could learn from senior citizens to benefit their mental health.
It's also worth noting that this study adds to a growing body of research on the relationship between well being and age. Several other studies has found a similar pattern in which happiness increases as the years pass, while another fascinating branch of investigation has uncovered the way the very definition of happiness changes are we age.
According to these findings, happiness for the young is often excitement and success relative to one's peers -- relatively rare and contingent occurrences that are frequently out of our control. Meanwhile, older folks tend to equate happiness with savoring life's pleasures and finding meaning in their time here on Earth, both of which are internally controlled by the individual and available nearly 24/7. These differing definitions of happiness could go a long way to explaining why seniors have an easier time finding mental peace than striving, comparing young people.
Has your life followed a pattern of increasing mental well being as you age?