CHICAGO -- Newsflash for rock stars and teenagers: It turns out everything doesn't go downhill as we age — the golden years really are golden.
That's according to eye-opening research that found the happiest Americans are the oldest, and older adults are more socially active than the stereotype of the lonely senior suggests.
The two go hand-in-hand — being social can help keep away the blues.
"The good news is that with age comes happiness," said study author Yang Yang, a University of Chicago sociologist. "Life gets better in one's perception as one ages."
A certain amount of distress in old age is inevitable, including aches, pains and deaths of loved ones and friends. But older people generally have learned to be more content with what they have than younger adults, Yang said.
This is partly because older people have learned to lower their expectations and accept their achievements, said Duke University aging expert Linda George. An older person may realize "it's fine that I was a schoolteacher and not a Nobel prize winner."
George, who was not involved in the new study, believes the research is important because the general public continues to think that "late life is far from the best stage of life and they don't look forward to it."
Yang's findings are based on periodic face-to-face interviews with a nationally representative sample of Americans from 1972 to 2004. About 28,000 people aged 18 to 88 took part.
There were ups and downs in overall happiness levels during the study, generally corresponding with good and bad economic times. But at every stage, older Americans were the happiest.
While younger blacks and poor people tended to be less happy than whites and wealthier people, those differences faded as people aged.
In general, the odds of being happy increased 5% with every 10 years of age.
Overall, about 33% of Americans reported being very happy at age 88, versus about 24% of those age 18 to their early 20s. And throughout the study years, most Americans reported being very happy or pretty happy; less than 20% said they were not too happy.