•It may seem counterintuitive, but study after study shows that the happiest days of our lives will occur in old age.
•Older people feel less pressure in life, stress, and regret. They dwell less on negative information and are better able to regulate their emotions.
If you are wondering whether 10 or 20 years from now you will be happier than you are today, the most likely answer to that is: Yes.
“There’s this idea that old age is bad, it’s all gloom and doom and older people are usually depressed, grumpy and unhappy,” says study author Dr Dilip Jeste, a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the Center on Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego.
Happiness and wellbeing are thought to take a U-shaped curve throughout life, dipping down in middle age before inching up again later in old age.
However, there is some existing evidence that suggests that life today is easier for older people than it used to be.
A study found that depressive symptoms in late life declined from 1998 to 2008.
Other research, however, supports a worsening trend for younger adults, who seem to have more depression and anxiety than youth in recent decades.
Though the reason isn't clear yet, it is conceivable that the changes in societal functioning can greatly affect this.
Factors such as progressive globalization, technology development, increased competition for higher education, better-paying paying jobs, and the changing roles of women in society are likely to impact younger people than they might affect older people.
But it all narrows to the brain and perception. Older people feel less pressure in life, stress, and regret. They dwell less on negative information and are better able to regulate their emotions.
Another new study has linked life satisfaction to a chemical in our brain called oxytocin, which increases with age.
For that matter, people who release more of the neurochemical are kinder to others and tend to be more satisfied with their lives.
The finding of this new research was published in Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience.
“The findings of our study are consistent with many religions and philosophies, where satisfaction with one’s life is enhanced by helping others,” reported first author Dr Paul J Zak of Claremont Graduate University.
While conducting the study, the experts found that participants who released the most oxytocin were more generous to charity when given the opportunity and performed many other philanthropic behaviours.
The change in oxytocin was also positively related to participants’ empathy, religious participation, and gratitude.
“Seniors spend more time volunteering and donate a larger proportion of their income to charity than do younger people, so we wanted to see if there was a neurochemical basis for these behaviours," said Zak.
The researchers recruited more than 100 people for the study, ranging between the ages of 18 and 99.
They were each shown a video about a little boy with cancer, which previous work had confirmed to induce oxytocin release in the brain. Blood was taken before and after the video to measure the change in oxytocin.
Serving others appears to prime the brain to release more oxytocin in a positive feedback loop of increased empathy and gratitude.
Zak would like to repeat this study in a more ethnically and geographically diverse sample of people to see if the findings hold for different cultures.
“We would also like to conduct a longer-term measurement of neurophysiology using non-invasive wearable technologies to see what specific activities raise people’s satisfaction with life,” he concluded.