Can Scientists Predict How Happy You’ll Be When You’re Old?By Bernie Wong | September 16, 2011 | 1 comment
New research examines the factors that most affect our happiness as we age.
* This Greater Good section, Research Digests, offers short summaries of recent studies on happiness, empathy, compassion, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we review the research so you don’t have to! Subscribe to the Research Digests RSS feed to receive future digests.
What Predicts Happiness?
"Predicting Well-Being From Personality in Adolescents and Older Adults"
Butkovic, A., Irma Brkovic, & Bratko. Journal of Happiness Studies, forthcoming 2011.
This study explored whether it’s possible to predict people’s happiness based on their personality, looking at both adolescents and older adults. The researchers gave surveys to 223 high school students and 134 adults, ages 54 to 90, measuring their happiness levels, self-esteem, loneliness, and general psychological health; they also assessed the participants’ personalities. The results show that demographic factors like age, gender, and marital status held little sway over happiness and general psychological health for adults and teens alike; education had only a slight influence on self-esteem and psychological well-being for older adults.
Personality, however, was the most strongly linked to happiness and psychological well-being throughout life, even more so among adolescents than adults. The most important personality factors were extroversion (how outgoing someone is) and “emotional stability,” meaning that someone is not easily upset and doesn’t suffer from persistent negative feelings. The authors suggest that personality affects happiness less among older adults because the relative influences of health, education, and relationships increase as people age. —Bernie Wong
The Key to Lasting Life Satisfaction
"Happiness and Suffering in the Life Story: An Inquiry into Conflicting Expectations Concerning the Association of Perceived Past with Present Subjective Well-Being in Old Age"
Shmotkin, D. & Shrira, A. Journal of Happiness Studies, forthcoming 2011.
Happy experiences make you happy and sad experiences make you sad, right? This study suggests it’s more complicated than that. Researchers asked 815 participants, ranging from 58 to 95 years of age, about their life story, particularly their “anchor” periods (i.e., the most emotionally significant points in life), as well as the most positive and negative periods of their lives. They also recorded participants’ overall life satisfaction. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that the intensity of happiness during positive periods was significantly higher than happiness during negative periods; it was also more intense than the level of sadness during both positive and negative periods .
The main finding, however, concerned how happiness and sadness during past happy or sad times help predict current happiness. Though happiness during happy times may boost life satisfaction, frequent sadness during sad times, and even happiness during sad times, can lead to low life satisfaction. In essence, happiness and suffering by themselves don’t determine overall life satisfaction; instead, what matters is the context in which these fleeting feelings are experienced, and how the sum of these experiences add up over time. —Bernie Wong