Aging & Longevity
Satisfaction with Life Increases with Age in
English-Speaking World but Not Everywhere
Study highlights how different people across the
world experience varying life-satisfaction levels and emotions as they
Nov. 6, 2014 - In the U.S., Canada, the U.K.,
Ireland, Australia and New Zealand researchers looking at life
satisfaction scores found middle-age residents report the lowest levels
of life satisfaction, which eventually bounces back up after age 54.
This "U-shaped curve" that bottoms out between the ages of 45 and 54 was
consistent in high-income, English speaking countries, but not other
regions of the world.
In contrast, residents of other regions - such as
the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Latin America and sub-Saharan
Africa - grow increasingly less satisfied as they age, according to a
new report published in The Lancet as part of a special series on
The study highlights how residents of different
regions across the world experience varying life-satisfaction levels and
emotions as they age. It was conducted by researchers from Princeton
University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs,
Stony Brook University and University College London.
In the former Soviet Union and Eastern European
countries, older residents reported very low rankings of life
satisfaction compared with younger residents in those regions. This same
pattern is seen in Latin America and Caribbean countries, though life
satisfaction does not decrease as sharply as in the Eastern European
countries. And in sub-Saharan Africa, life satisfaction is very low at
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"Economic theory can predict a dip in well-being
among the middle age in high-income, English-speaking countries," said
co-author Angus Deaton, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professor of Economics
and International Affairs at the Wilson School.
"What is interesting is that this pattern is not
universal. Other regions, like the former Soviet Union, have been
affected by the collapse of communism and other systems. Such events
have affected the elderly who have lost a system that, however
imperfect, gave meaning to their lives, and, in some cases, their
pensions and health care."
The research team — which includes Professor Andrew
Steptoe of University College London and Arthur A. Stone, who conducted
the research at Stony Brook but is now a professor at the University of
Southern California — also finds a two-way connection between physical
health and well-being: poorer health leads to lower ratings of life
satisfaction among the elderly, but higher life satisfaction seems to
stave off physical health declines.
"Our findings suggest that health care systems
should be concerned not only with illness and disability among the
elderly but their psychological states as well," Deaton said.
Using data collected by the Gallup World Poll and
the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, the researchers looked at
three measures of well-being: evaluative well-being, which focuses on
evaluations of how satisfied people are with their lives; hedonic
well-being, which is related to feelings or moods such as happiness,
sadness and anger; and eudemonic well-being, which relates to judgments
about the meaning and purpose of life. The researchers also looked at
respondents' ratings of physical health and pain.
Evaluative well-being was captured from
participants using a Cantril ladder scale. This measure of well-being,
developed half a century ago by Princeton social researcher Hadley
Cantril, asks participants to visualize a ladder with steps numbered
from zero at the bottom (worst possible life) to 10 at the top (best
The researchers were not surprised by the discovery
of the happy 54-year olds in the high-income, English speaking
countries. "This finding is almost expected," said Deaton. "This is the
period at which wage rates typically peak and is the best time to work
and earn the most, even at the expense of present well-being, so as to
have increased wealth and well-being later in life."
Outside of these high-income, English-speaking
countries, however, the same U-shaped curve is not seen. All other
regions report decreasing life-satisfaction levels as people age, with
the former Soviet Union and Eastern European countries having the
The researchers attribute this phenomenon to the
transitions these countries have experienced. They note that not being
happy, which is uncommon in high-income, English-speaking countries, is
quite common among transition countries, particularly among the elderly.
"The findings undoubtedly show the recent
experiences of the region and the distress that these events have
brought to older people," Deaton said.
Gender, however, seems to make little difference.
Men and women from the same regions have very similar levels of
satisfaction, the researchers report.
Patterns in other measures of well-being
When looking at hedonic well-being — emotions and
moods — across populations, the researchers find that older populations
in high-income, English-speaking countries experience less stress, worry
and anger than those who are middle-aged.
A similar pattern is seen in the middle-income
region of Latin America and Caribbean countries, where worry and stress
peak in middle age, though not as sharply as in the Eastern European
countries. And in sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers find that the
prevalence of worry, stress and unhappiness increases just slightly with
In terms of gender, the differences between men and
women in each region are slight. However, elderly women in former Soviet
Union and Eastern European countries have substantially more worry,
stress and pain than elderly men in those regions, regardless of the
fact that the health of men in these countries has suffered more.
To determine survival rates among the elderly, the
research team used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing,
and they compared it with data on eudemonic well-being, or purpose in
life. What emerges is a bidirectional relationship; when elderly people
feel they have a purpose, their rates of survival increase. The
researchers found that the proportion of deaths was 29.3 percent in the
lowest life-satisfaction grouping and only 9.3 percent in the highest
"Even though the results do not unequivocally show
that eudemonic well-being is causally linked with mortality, the
findings do raise intriguing possibilities about positive well-being
being implicated in reduced risk to health," the authors conclude.
In terms of physical pain, the fractions of young
people reporting physical pain is similar across all regions, though the
age-related trajectories for pain are much steeper in the former Soviet
countries, sub-Saharan African and Latin America and Caribbean countries
than in the high-income, English-speaking countries. Additionally, the
pain divide between the old and young in former communist countries is
much starker than the other regions.
While the research team agrees that progress is
being made in terms of understanding how behavioral and biological
elements play a role in subjective well-being, they agree that more work
needs to be done.
"Investment in these research resources is
essential," said Deaton. "Most studies are of high-income countries and
not those with low or middle incomes. However, cross-national surveys
such as the Gallup World Poll and others are beginning to re-address the
The paper, "Subjective wellbeing, health, and
ageing," will be published Nov. 6, 2014, in The Lancet.
Funding was provided by the U.S. National Institute
on Ageing (grants 2RO1AG7644-01A1 and 2RO1AG017644) and a consortium of
U.K. Government departments coordinated by the Office for National
Statistics. Both Deaton and Stone are supported by the U.S. National
Institute on Aging through the National Bureau of Economic Research
(grants 5R01AG040629-02 and P01 AG05842-14) and by the Gallup
Organization. Stone also is supported by the British Heart Foundation.
The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing was
developed by a team of researchers based at University College London,
the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the National Centre for Social
Wilson School research briefs.