For all its challenges to mental health, the past year also put psychological science to the test, and in particular one of its most consoling truths: that age and emotional well-being tend to increase together, as a rule, even as mental acuity and physical health taper off.
The finding itself is solid. Compared with young adults, people aged 50 and over tend to experience more positive emotions in a given day and fewer negative ones, independent of income or education, in national samples. (Work remains to be done in impoverished, rural and immigrant communities.)
But that happiness gap always has begged for a clear explanation. Do people somehow develop better coping skills as they age?
Or do people simply sharpen their avoidance skills, reducing the number of stressful situations and bad risks they face as they get older?
studied that reality. In April, the team recruited a representative sample of some 1,000 adults, aged 18 to 76, living across the country. The participants answered surveys with detailed questions about their emotions over the previous week.
If older people indeed manage their emotions by avoiding stressful situations, the scientists reasoned, then the happiness gap should shrink, if not disappear.
Yet the survey showed that their moods remained elevated, on average, compared with those in younger generations.
exhaustively surveyed some 800 adults of all ages in the first couple of months of the pandemic — and found the same thing.
These results hardly rule out avoidance as one means of managing day-to-day emotions. Older people, especially those with some resources, have more ability than younger adults to soften the edges of a day, by paying for delivery, hiring help, staying comfortably homebound and — crucially — doing so without young children underfoot.