mental health

People don’t necessarily get happier as they age, study finds

People don't necessarily get happier as they age, study finds
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A large study in South Korea exploring the relationship between age and well-being found that whether or not well-being improves in old age depends on the personality traits of agreeableness and neuroticism. In particular, well-being does not increase at an advanced age in unpleasant and highly neurotic people. The study was published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being.

Researchers studying how happiness and well-being change with age over the past few decades have reported an interesting relationship. Around forty, happiness tends to decrease. As people approach their 40s, on average they become less and less happy. However, once the quarantine passes, their happiness and well-being begin to increase again.

This has been reported both by studies comparing people of different ages (i.e. cross-sectional) and by those that have followed the same people for years as they age (i.e. -d. longitudinal). Scientists call this type of relationship a U-shaped relationship because this pattern of happiness first decreasing and then increasing again after midlife resembles the letter U.

However, some more recent studies have challenged this view, noting that studies exploring this relationship were inconsistent in their conclusions. Although the properties of the study methodologies and assessment methods used can likely explain some of these inconsistencies, an important factor to consider is personality. Personality traits are well known to be associated with well-being. It’s entirely possible that they affect how happiness and well-being change with age.

Study author Joo Hyun Kim and his colleagues wanted to test whether the U-shaped relationship between age and well-being found in studies in other countries is also present in South Korea. South, given its specific cultural context. They also wanted to examine whether personality traits could be linked to how happiness and well-being change towards old age.

They organized an online survey on well-being and personality through an online survey platform launched by the Center for Happiness Studies at Seoul National University and Kakao Corporation ( /Hello). The participants were 10,456 people between the ages of 14 and 75. The average age of the participants was 30 years old. Women represented 85% of participants.

Participants completed ratings of subjective well-being, expressed through its three components – life satisfaction (“Are you satisfied with your life today?”), positive affect (happy, pleasant and relaxed ) and negative affect (bored, bored, depressed, and anxious). Personality has been conceptualized as the five personality traits of the Big Five personality model, namely neuroticism, agreeableness, extroversion, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. These were assessed using a 50-item scale created from the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP). The participants indicated their years of birth, from which the researchers calculated the age of the participants.

The results showed that the differences between age groups actually constitute a U-shaped curve. Specifically, for positive affect and life satisfaction, it was U-shaped. For a negative effect, it had an inverted U shape. This means that negative emotions were highest in middle-aged participants and lowest in younger and older age groups.

More importantly, the personality traits of agreeableness and neuroticism altered the shape of the relationship between well-being and age. For very pleasant people, well-being increased sharply with the age of participants beyond their 40s. For unagreeable participants, the curve showed no relationship between age and well-being or even reversed its shape. Overall, the differences in well-being between people with different levels of agreeableness were much larger for the older and younger age groups.

When neuroticism was considered, the results were similar. The U-shaped relationship between age and well-being was most pronounced for participants with low neuroticism. For participants high in neuroticism, the curve representing the relationship became flat, but did not reverse its shape. The other three personality traits were not associated with the form of this link.

The study makes a valuable contribution to the scientific understanding of changes in well-being with age. However, it must be taken into account that the study compared people of different ages and not the same people according to their age. Therefore, the observed effects could also be due to intergenerational differences. In addition, the study participants were predominantly female. Results for male samples may differ.

The study, “Older People Are Not Always Happier Than Young People: The Moderating Role of Personality,” was authored by Joo Hyun Kim, Eunsoo Choi, Namhee Kim, and Incheol Choi.

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