August 13, 2007

Happy, Happy, Happy!

Martha at That'sFit discovered an interesting survey about aging and happiness that surprised the hell out of Crabby.

It was conducted by a Big Bank (HSBC), not a team of smarty-pants researchers from a University, but it was large (21,000 people) and included people age 40-80 in 21 different countries.

And guess what? They found more people in their 60's and 70's reported being happy than people in their 40's.

This is encouraging, isn't it? Because we're all going to get older, at least until the scientists discover how to make aging optional.

And some of us are perhaps not entirely sure we're looking forward to our Seventies and beyond. We fear Alzheimer's and achy joints and bypass surgeries. In the drugstore aisles we push our shopping carts briskly past the Depends and the Dentu-grip and the Metamucil and the Special Toilet Booster Seats and try to assure ourselves we'll never need them. Perhaps we've even peeked inside a nursing home or two and seen groups of frail elders wrapped in plaid blankets staring slack-jawed at Golden Girls reruns. We've thought: Yikes, that doesn't look all that appealing.

But it turns out, according to researchers--the elderly are not just as happy as we are, they're happier!

The article goes on to quote various experts who offer their theories about why we tend to get happier as we age--there's some interesting information in there. And Crabby is open to the idea that in our journey from our childhoods to our "golden years," we might indeed become increasingly content. But she is not entirely convinced that people in their 70's and beyond are really a whole lot happier than people in their 40's.

Mainly it's because Crabby has trouble with any of the studies or surveys that try to measure and compare how happy people are by asking them how happy they are.

When you ask a person "are you happy," or in this case, "were you happy most of the time in the previous week," are you measuring happiness? Or are you measuring honesty?

Or, even more confusing, are you measuring cultural attitudes about what "happiness" means and how you're supposed to feel, and what you're supposed to say when a complete stranger asks you a binary question that's meant to sum up a lot of complicated and charged emotional territory in your life?

Crabby thinks it's equally possible that people born in the 1960's or later are more willing to say to a stranger, "This week wasn't the happiest ever" than people who were born in the 1930's. Even if the same number of people had less-than-happy weeks.

And here's where the skewed world view of Crabby McSlacker might become apparent to readers who havn't caught on to her yet. She thinks most folks aren't nearly as happy as the studies say they are.

Which is not to say they're Unhappy either!

Crabby just thinks these studies aren't very good at capturing true states of mind. Because they make it sound like people are deliriously happy most of the time, and Crabby just isn't buying it.

When Happiness Researchers compare statistics about how happy people are, they're often comparing numbers like 80% vs. 90% of people being happy. In this study, for example, 78% of U.S. respondents in their 40's, 87% of those in their 60's, and 89% of those in their 70's said they were "happy most of the time in the previous week."

Really? Almost ninety percent of people are walking around being "happy most of the time?"

Crabby has talked to and shared experiences with many friends and acquaintances. She has observed people in public. She has been in DMV lines and dentist's offices and grocery stores; but she has also been in places people go for "fun" like and restaurants and amusement parks. Are some of them happy, some of the time? Sure! Are almost all of them happy most of the time? No! She swears this is just not true.

Most people spend a lot of time just being... average. Neutral. Not happy, not unhappy, just There, just Existing. And there's nothing wrong with that. That's normal, that's life! Is that the new "Happy?" If you're There, if you Exist, then you're Happy? Perhaps actual "happiness," as Crabby understands and appreciates it, has lost its meaning.

And it's ironic, because Crabby, despite being crabby about health matters, actually feels she is a Happy person herself! She believes she spends more time content, engaged, happy, or even ecstatic than the "average" person does, based on what she has observed. If you saw her in the grocery store, she would probably smile at you. And she would not get all grouchy with the cashier, even a slow fumbly one, like some people do, because she is usually in a Good mood not a Bad one.

But like anyone, she spends a lot of time in "Neutral." She even has occasional frustrating moments. Do 70 year olds spend more time feeling ecstatic and less time feeling frustrated than she does? Perhaps they do. But Crabby is not trusting any of these surveys to give tell her the whole story of who "who is happier," at least until they figure out how to ask their questions better.

So what do you all think about Relative Happiness?


  1. I believe that a lot of it has to do with what there is to be unhappy about. Don't forget, in our 20s and 30s (and 40s), many of us are establishing relationships, starting families and jumpstarting careers. There's lots to be unhappy about if some of these don't go right.

    In the same age bracket, plus the 50s maybe, many people have difficulties with kids and relationships that are going sour, they may have jobs they hate and so on.

    By the time we're in our 60s and up, we've raised our kids, are at the end of our work career and other than our health and that of our loved ones and friends, there's not the stresses that we had earlier.

    hah! See, I can be serious sometimes! :-P

  2. This first thing I would probably say if someone asked me if I was happy is, "Well, I'm not UNhappy... so sure, I guess so."

    I think most people also don't want to sound pouty and ungrateful. Maybe the older we get the more we realize there's really not that much that we need to let get us down in our personal lives or we just deal with disappointment better.

    Or maybe not. I was woken up way too early this morning so my brain is tooting along in first gear. Not that I'm unhappy, mind you. ;)

  3. Oh for Dog's sake. How was happy defined?
    If you've got a choice of happy/not happy, well, in the general application, unless you've had a really lousy week, you're likely to go with happy. People in their 40s are coping with kids, jobs, mortgages, etc. and they have all manner of things they can find to complain about and thus consider themselves unhappy.
    I don't buy into studies that presume to gauge anybody's happiness based on age. Or anything else. Interesting, though.

  4. Sounds like you've been visiting Walden Pond!

    Several year's ago I attended a talk by the wonderful Timothy Leary. He was getting pretty old by this time. He said that Alzheimer's disease felt a lot like when he used LSD in the 60's! Oh Boy!!


  5. You bring up lots of good points Crabby. I consider myself a pretty happy person. But if you look at my next to one of my siblings who is sing-songy chipper all the time I might look quite abysmal.
    My grandparents are pretty happy people too. With them, I believe it has to do with the point Marikje made. They've lived long wonderful lives and are surrounded but lots of people who love them. But I also think the time they were born may play into that a little, I'm not sure.

  6. If by "happy" they mean "content," I think they're probably right.

    I read long ago that people tend to be happiest in the 50-60 age range. If you've had children, they're typically grown and gone by that point. If you've invested a lot of effort in your career, you're probably well-established. Your relationships are probably stable by now, too.

    You're at an age where if you've taken basic steps to safeguard your health, you're probably still pretty fit. But you've lost a lot of the exhausting ego of youth-- the worrying over how you look and who is looking. In fact, by 50 or 60, you've figured out NO ONE CARES, and it's a damn good feeling.

    But most important to long-term contentment, IMO, is that you've accrued enough life experiences and seen enough ups and downs to not get too hung up on stuff any more. A bad day, a mean remark from someone, a phone that doesn't ring (or that rings too much), and a bill you can't pay in full this month are just life. Nothing to panic over. The world won't end.

    By mid-life, you've learned that being down today means you'll be up again tomorrow, and being on top today isn't a permanent plateau from which you should never expect to fall. You know you're vulnerable, but you also know how to roll with the punches and bide your time. Good times come, good times go, good times return again. At 20, this is academic knowledge. At 50, this is experience, and it's embedded in your soul.

    If we could've understood life at 20 in the same way we do at mid-life, we would've ruled the world. Unfortunately, only a VERY atypical life will impart a 50-year old's experience much before age 50. And that's how it should be, because each age has its needs and passions.

    There's a lot to be said for the giddy emotional highs you can feel when you're young. But by 30 or 40, they exhaust you and you start settling into either sour cyncicsm or a deep contentment and acceptance of life's caprices. Go the way of acceptance, and life can be very, very good.

  7. I'm pretty sure that if I couldn't remember what I did about 10 minutes ago, let alone over the past week I'd say I was happy when someone asked as well.

    My mom is almost 60 now and forgets just about everything because she's a nut case. Thus she happens to be pretty darn happy, can't remember what to be unhappy about. :) Except when she loses her keys, this is very frustrating but only until she get side tracked on something else.

    All kidding aside...I think there are different kinds of happy.

  8. Because we're all going to get older, at least until the scientists discover how to make aging optional

    LOL. Man I hope that day comes soon! =)

  9. Hey Cranky, really interesting post! I agree with a lot of the previous posters that in the 20s-50s, there are a lot of life changes and turmoil as you settle in (or get uprooted), and that may be what causes the difference. I also think that there is no objective way to measure happiness, so these studies don't seem worth all that much to me. But it does make sense that older people would be more content - they've had 60-70 years to figure out what it is they want out of life, and to go get it.

    On a tangent, to illustrate the unhappiness factor for us "youngsters," I just came across a post on the Freakonomics blog about this guy who's teaching men to insult women as a way to get them into bed. Blech. Jack that unhappiness meter up. I put a post about it on my blog.

  10. I definitely believe everyone has a choice to be happy vs. unhappy. I've always been a bubbly optimist, but sure, I have my moments too.

    The thing I've been hearing a lot recently from semi-new friends is that they have learned so much from me about being happy and making the best of things.

    It'd be great if it just got better for me, but I'm not sure I can comment on being happier with age since I'm only 21. :)

  11. Marijke,
    I'm totally with you on the general rise in contentment by the 60's. I'm just surprised that by the 70's this survey still has happiness going up! That's great news if its true--but I can't help thinking that some of the pain and disability that comes with aging for many folks would start to take a bit of a toll, on average, on how happy people are. And you're comments are always interesting whether you're being serious or being a smartass!

    I'd say "yes" to that question too, and probably even if I were having a really shitty day! Which is why I think the surveys aren't all that accurate. But good point about people not wanting to sound ungrateful. And hope you get a chance for to catch up on your sleep! Early awakenings are a pain.

    Hi Leah,
    Oh good, another skeptic like me. I do think it was interesting too, as I wouldn't have predicted the results. But good point about the stresses of the 40's.

    Dr. J,
    Wow, so Timothy Leary was lecturing on what Alzheimers felt like? That must have been a fascinating lecture!

    Hi Katieo,
    Well you sure seem like a happy person to me. :) And that's great about your grandparents. Seems like that would bode well for you and Molly too!

    Will return...

  12. BunnyGirl,
    Great points about the kind of perspective that only seems to come with age and experience! I sure wish I could have been one of those rare 20 year olds with a 50 year old's perspective, but, alas, no such luck.

    Very funny--I think they need to do a survey to see if nut cases are indeed happier, and I wouldn't be surprised if they are! And yeah, I think a huge problem with these studies is that happiness can mean so many different things to different people.

    Hi Erica,
    Great blogs you've got there! And count me in wanting the scientists to hurry the heck up with that.

    Hi Leth,
    Oh my goodness, that sounds awful. Will have to check out it out ASAP. Thanks for alerting me to it!

    I suspect that if you're a happy 21 year old, and that people are actually asking how you do it? You've got a very bright future indeed!

    And that whole choosing happiness vs. unhappiness thing is something most people may agree with intellectually, but few seem to really "get" it (and how to actually do it) until much older. Congrats for being ahead of your time!

  13. "Timothy Leary was lecturing on what Alzheimers felt like? That must have been a fascinating lecture!"

    At least one of us remembered it!!

    Actually, he was lecturing on being Timothy Leary which was, yes facinating!

    I think the most useful saying on being happy is:

    "Focus on what you do have, not on what you don't have."


  14. Thanks for the kind words Crabby! Always nice to hear that I'm not living in my own little fantasy world and that my brains actually work ^^

  15. Hi crabby....I'll be back later to catch up on your posts....but I'm doing a little blog tag and you've been tagged! Here's a link to my blog for details:

  16. Apparently, Harvard's most popular course is about happiness.

  17. The older we get, the more likely we'll be presribed meds of some sort or another.

    Drugs = Happy! ;)

    And of course we have an alternative to aging... I'd rather just keep on getting older thanks!

    Enjoyable post as always, Crabby.

  18. Ok, I have not been following y'alls discussion. I read the post the morning and finally had an "aha" moment as to what is causing the happiness. The women are no longer having periods and the men are no longer fearing getting them knocked up.

  19. I believe that the older generation (that's anyone older than me) just do not "admit" to being unhappy as freely as younger people do, and this invalidates the findings. I simply can't imagine my now departed mum telling some total stranger that she was unhappy. That generation simply didn't do that.

    I also have a theory that states a miserable childhood is great because it makes you feel that life is getting better every decade!

  20. So while I think "Happiness" research is very worthwhile (thanks for the link, Lisa!) I believe you folks are a lot smarter than the scientists about the possible reasons behind the numbers! Plus you're way funnier.

    I think they need to give us a big fat pile of grant money to go out in the real world and find out who is happy and who is not and why--you folks would do a much better job, both at gathering the data and finding good things to spend the money on!

  21. I'm a whole lot younger than 70 and all but I've been noticing that as we get older our idea of what happiness is changes and evolves. And we learn happiness can come out of little things and not just big happy events (like going on that big date to that resturant or riding on that roller coaster at the amusement park)

    I'm a very happy person and it's a relativelyt new thing. Recovering from a severe mental illness and gfinding God kind of changes your life in wonderful ways.

    But more than happy, I'm content. I would say I am content at least 90% of the time. I don't count that to mean happiness but if I sit and reflect on how good life is right now and how content I am, it makes me feel happy. I guess it's all how you look back on it too.

    I'm also inbterested in how different people define happiness. As someone with bipolar disorder, I've most frequently sought help when I was in an extreme mania. The last time I was hospitalized in a psych ward I went into the ER at about 3am and told them in very fast and loud hyper speech that I hadn't slept in days and couldn't calm down and hadn't eaten. And the doctor seriously said to me "Why are you here? Aren't you really happy?" Happy is not being so wound up and manic that even the drugs they shoot into you can't calm you down (and you still don't sleep for another 24 hours). That is NOT happy. Mania can be fun, but when it gets extreme, it's not extreme happiness, it's hell.

    I've only found true happiness in mental stability and those "normal" moods, not one of the extremes.

    Anyway, I could say so much on this topic. Happiness is a rather recent discovery for me, and it's nice. (So on the other hand I used to be mostly unhappy, most of the time)

  22. Well, of course older people are happier! Most of them are retired, and no one expects them to do anything or follow orders anymore, except maybe for doctors.

  23. My Grandmother, when in her 70's & 80's turned from being jolly and loving to being a ROYAL pain in the brain with her grouchiness. But I couldn't help but notice when she was around strangers, she was always acting like she was the happiest person on earth. It was pretty eerie hearing her laugh (the loud HAHAHAHAHAHA kind) knowing how much she hated everything! I don't believe that most of the people tell the truth in these polls. Hell, even I lie if I'm feeling moody when someone asks how I am. Sometimes that little lie actually makes me forget what may have brought me down in the first place. And, by the way, I think my grandma got pissy when they cut off her valium supply.

  24. Meg, great to hear how much happier you are now--and it sounds more like 'real' happiness as opposed to mania--which as you point out, is a whole different thing!

    And good point, anonymous, about not having to work!


    I'm glad I'm not the only one who's skeptical of these surveys. And though I know it probably wasn't much fun in real life, your description of your grandmother's on/off behavior with strangers was fascinating (and a little creepy!)

  25. Dude, happiness is too subjective and means too many things on different levels to make the results of any survey based around people's different connotations of "happy" to mean anything to me. But, hmph, I have an account with HSBC and they didn't even ask me if I was happy.

    I am getting caught up on the cranky, and well, the caveman post made me laugh. And that me feel happy.


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