June 21, 2006 -- -- We may get creaky and cranky as we get older, but we can be happier than we were when we were young.
So says Peter A. Ubel and other researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Ubel has spent years researching how we cope with life, and how we deal with the circumstances we sometimes find ourselves in, and he reveals all in a book just released by McGraw-Hill, "You're Stronger Than You Think: Tapping the Secrets of Emotionally Resilient People."
Ubel, director of the university's Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine, says people are wrong if they think sad circumstances condemns them to a life of misery.
"They imagine that experiencing adversity, like a serious illness, or a disability, or aging, if you want to call that an adversity, will make them less happy," he says. "But a hoard of studies really show that it has a much smaller affect on people's happiness than they anticipate.
"Many people come away [from adversity] no less happy than they were before."
In his latest study, carried out with Heather Lacey, a postdoctoral fellow with the Veterans Administration's Ann Arbor Healthcare System, Ubel found that most people are happier in their later years than they were when they were young, although they may not have expected that to be the case.
The research also shows that even if you think you're going to be happy in your senior years, you probably think most of you're friends won't. But that's not true either, says Ubel, who is 44 years old and admits to being chronically happy.
Wisdom May Bring Contentment
Lots of reasons, Ubel says, but near the top of the list is the simple fact that as we stumble through life, we somehow get better at it. Living, that is, not stumbling.
"I think we really do get wiser," he says. "And I think that really does improve our emotions."
But of course, life is a gamble, and we don't all start with the same deck of cards. Some people just seem to be born "with a smile on their face," as Ubel puts it. Other little bodies seem to come with a frown.
"We definitely have underlying personalities that are largely from genetics," he says.
But experience brings wisdom, and that brings happiness, even in the face of adversity, he adds.
Hogwash, you might say, if you're gray around the temples. Just look how much fun the kids are having. Those were the days.
"To those people, I say watch 10 minutes of any MTV reality show," Ubel says. "You will remember what it was like to be 20 years old, and how your emotions went up and down. The slightest personal slight sent you off into drudgery for three days.
"When we think of being young, it's easy to remember when your joints didn't ache so much, your skin wasn't as wrinkly, you hair wasn't as gray, when the world seemed like it was just loaded with possibilities. But we forget that we also were learning about some basic emotions. We were learning how to interact with other people. We were learning about ourselves, we were maybe struggling with our religious beliefs."
It's probably a lot easier to live through those years in retrospect than in real time.
'Lake Wobegon' Effect
In the latest study by Ubel and Lacey, 540 adults were asked to rate or predict their own sense of happiness, on a scale of 1 to 10, at their current age, at age 30 and at age 70. The participants were between the ages of 21 and 40, or over 60.
"Overall, people got it wrong, believing that most people become less happy as they age, when in fact this study and others have shown that people tend to become happier over time," says Lacey, lead author of the study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. "Not only do younger people believe that older people are less happy, but older people believe they and others must have been happier 'back then.' Neither belief is accurate."
People in the older group reported a current level of happiness for themselves that was significantly higher than the self-rating made by the younger group's members, the researchers say. But participants of all ages thought that the average 30-year-old would be happier than the average 70-year-old, and that happiness would decline with age.
If that were truly the case, the older participants would have rated themselves much less happy than the younger participants, and they didn't, according to the study.
Interestingly, nearly all the participants thought they would be happier in old age than their friends.
Why? Ubel calls it the "Lake Wobegon effect," with apologies to Garrison Keillor. All the children can't be above average. Mathematically, it just won't work.
But nobody wants to be average, whether it's at driving a car or feeling happy. We want to be better than the other guy. In other words, we're proud of ourselves.
"That's a good thing, and it may be part of what makes people healthy and happy," Ubel says. "They've managed to convince themselves that they're better than average."
Ubel, who's also an adjunct professor of psychology at the university, has a short formula that might contribute to his happiness.
"I just have a lot of things that I'm interested in and that make me happy," says Ubel.
He's been that way for a long time.
"I remember in college, and those are days that can try people emotionally, walking across campus one day thinking I just couldn't remember the last time I was unhappy."
And if his research is on target, even though his hair may fall out and his joints fail, the best years are still ahead. At least in terms of happiness.