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April 16, 2008

With Age Comes Happiness, Sociological Study Shows

Chicago Americans become happier as they age, according to a new University of Chicago sociological study published in the April issue of the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.

The study, one of the most thorough examinations of happiness in America, also found that baby boomers are not as content as other generations, blacks are less happy than whites, women are happier than men, happiness can rise and fall between eras, and that, as people age, their happiness increases while the differences between genders and ethnic groups narrow.

"Understanding happiness is important to understanding quality of life. The happiness measure is a guide to how well society is meeting people's needs," said Yang Yang, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and author of the article, "Social Inequalities in Happiness in the United States, 1972-2004: An Age-Period-Cohort Analysis."

The study is based on data from the National Science Foundation-supported General Social Survey (GSS) of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Since 1972, the GSS has asked a scientifically selected cross-section of Americans this same question: "Taken all together, how would you say things are these days—would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy or not too happy?" The question is administered with other queries in face-to-face interviews of between about 1,500 to 3,000 people, resulting in data that social scientists consider the gold standard of happiness research.

Yang charted happiness across age and racial groups and found that among 18-year-olds, white women are the happiest, with a 33 percent probability of being very happy, followed by white men (28 percent), black women (18 percent) and black men (15 percent).

Differences vanish over time, however, as happiness increases. Black men and black women have just more than a 50 percent chance of being very happy by their late 80s, while white men and white women are close behind.

The increase in happiness with age is consistent with the "age as maturity hypothesis," Yang said. With age comes positive psychosocial traits, such as self-integration and self-esteem; these signs of maturity could contribute to a better sense of overall well-being. In addition, group differences in happiness decrease with age due to the equalization of resources that contribute to happiness, such as access to health care, including Medicare and Medicaid, and the loss of social support due to the deaths of spouses and friends, Yang added.

The time span of the survey also helped determine how different people in the same generational group fared. The baby boom generation (born from 1946 to1964) was the least happy among those surveyed.

"This is probably due to the fact that the generation as a group was so large, and their expectations were so great, that not everyone in the group could get what he or she wanted as they aged due to competition for opportunities. This could lead to disappointment that could undermine happiness," Yang said.

On another measure, Yang found that happiness in the country is not static. Reviewing the study's 33-year period, she noticed definite upticks when the nation flourished economically. For example, she found that 1995 was a very good year on the happiness scale.

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For a copy of the study or for more information, contact Jackie Cooper at jcooper@asanet.org or (202) 247-9871.

The American Sociological Review is the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.

 

About the American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association (www.asanet.org), founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions to and use of sociology by society.