The second story this week is from Psyblog ‘People are happiest at this unexpected time of life’ – unsurprisingly, it reports that people get happier with age.
Alarm bells…. What kind of happiness are we talking about? There are some important distinctions to consider...
Anxiety and depression peak in our 20s and 30s. So it’s not happiness; it’s absence of mental health problems? Yes: Professor Dilip Jeste says young adulthood has worse levels of psychological well-being than other adult time periods. It’s a study from a survey of 1546 randomly selected adults in San Diego County. Random? Really? The post says this is the first link between better mental health and getting older. Again, I very much doubt it…. And it could be that
“older people tend not to ‘sweat the small stuff’, are more wise, regulate their emotions more effectively, retain fewer negative emotions and memories, and make better social decisions.”
Well, there’s loads of research on that. Was this just imprecise writing, or was the study awful? As it happens, a link to the study itself also arrived in my inbox this week because it cited one of the few wisdom researchers out there, Igor Grossmann, and I follow his work. So do we have any questions for the original work? Of course.
1. What’s your main conclusion and are you sure it’s the first time it’s been drawn?
The study was only published this month so I haven’t been able to access the full text yet. However the abstract is out there, and there’s a press release from Jeste’s University, so we know that the sample wasn’t randomly selected, but used random digit dialling to find participants with telephones. Minor detail? Perhaps. The conclusion is warped by the writing. It seems to be that Jeste is not claiming to have discovered a new link between aging and better mental health, because this ‘paradox’ is already quite well known (see, for example, Kunzmann, Little and Smith, 2000). Rather, the finding is that in this study, improvement in mental health showed a steady, linear trend from young adulthood. The importance of this is in the absence of a decline in mental health in mid-life. So the conclusion isn’t really about happiness in later life; it’s about fewer mental health problems than expected in mid-life. More information would be great now – the issue of whether questions to participants were about happiness or satisfaction or absence of mental health symptoms is really not trivial.
2. Is there an explanation of the possible mechanisms for this? For example, do we actually get happier as we age, or do we just feel less?
No, and there shouldn’t be. For a start, the study is cross-sectional, meaning it’s not about trends in the lives of individuals. It could just represent differences in groups at the present time.
Take home message? When we get a closer look at the measures used, I suspect there’s a really interesting story in the data and it’s being completely overlooked in the media, with lazy reporting of the now unsurprising finding that some aspects of mental health are at their healthy peak in later life. I see no reason to think the study itself was awful – it actually looks very promising and quite measured in its claims. Is this what happens when writers don’t read the research for themselves and the researcher's voice is lost...?