Charting Happiness: Study Finds It Comes With Age If the multibillion-dollar self-help industry is any gauge, Americans are spending a great deal of time and money trying to be happy. But a new study shows happiness is more a matter of time -- just wait for it. Host Guy Raz talks with psychologist Arthur Stone about his new study. It shows happiness tapering off in our 20s and returning after we turn 50.
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Charting Happiness: Study Finds It Comes With Age

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Charting Happiness: Study Finds It Comes With Age

Charting Happiness: Study Finds It Comes With Age

Charting Happiness: Study Finds It Comes With Age

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/127279055/127279084" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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If the multibillion-dollar self-help industry is any gauge, Americans are spending a great deal of time and money trying to be happy. But a new study shows happiness is more a matter of time — just wait for it. Host Guy Raz talks with psychologist Arthur Stone about his new study. It shows happiness tapering off in our 20s and returning after we turn 50.

GUY RAZ, host:

Another study out suggests you might as well throw away your Deepak Chopra and Tony Robbins because wakening the giant within or unlocking the seven keys to joy might not make a whole lot of difference. It turns out happiness drops off in the 20's and picks up again around age 50.

Arthur Stone, a professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University tracked the emotions of some 340,000 adults, and he published those findings in the Proceedings of The national Academy of Sciences.

Professor ARTHUR STONE (Psychiatry, Stony Brook University): Happiness, in a general way, improves as one gets older.

RAZ: And so, no matter what you do in life, no matter what books you read or -you will eventually become happier.

Prof. STONE: Well, of the 340,000 people that we studied in this Gallup-Healthways poll, we found that on average, that's what happened. Now, of course, an average doesn't represent everyone.

RAZ: So how did you find out how happy or sad or angry or stressed people were? Was it based purely on answers to questions?

Prof. STONE: Yes. This is all based on self report, which is really probably the only way one can get at it. We replicated some work that's been done showing a particular pattern over age in what's called life satisfaction. What that means is you are asked the question: Taking all things into account, how is your life going these days? Is it going poorly or is it going very, very well, generally speaking.

We found with that question that there is a U-shaped relationship with age. And what I mean by that is that you are least satisfied with life in middle age or around the 50's and that you are most satisfied in the 20's and in the 70's and early 80's.

RAZ: So what do you think accounts for the fact that people become happier after the age of 50? Why? I mean, what are the reasons?

Prof. STONE: Well, that's the big puzzle here. It's especially puzzling in the phase of increasing levels of illness as one gets older. One of the big theories out there is from Laura Carstensen at Stanford University. And her view is this, that when you're younger, you're making decisions with a forward-looking, aspirational head about you. That is, you're looking to achieve things in life. And that may mean that you're not really focusing on your current well-being.

When you get older, you sort of know where you are in life. You stop looking forward quite so much and you start focusing on smaller things in life like being with friends and families or hobbies or volunteering that bring you immediate satisfaction.

RAZ: Is there a correlation between happiness - sort of happiness growth after the age of 50, and the fact that many parents, you know, become empty nesters, right? Their children leave home for college and, you know, in life.

Prof. STONE: We thought exactly the same thing when we saw this pattern of mood and life satisfaction. We had that information in the survey. When we statistically entered it and controlled for it, we found that it had no impact on the shape of this age distribution.

RAZ: Hmm. Well, I can tell you as a parent myself, I think I'm going to be very sad when my son leaves the house. That won't happen for another 18 years or 17 years, but, you know, I like him being in the house.

Prof. STONE: I went through exactly the same thing, but you do get over it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: That's Arthur Stone. He is a distinguished professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University in New York.

Arthur Stone, thank you so much.

Prof. STONE: you're quite welcome.

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