CHICAGO — It turns out the golden years really are golden.
New research finds the happiest Americans are the oldest, and older adults are more socially active than the stereotype of the lonely senior suggests. The two go hand-in-hand: Being social can help keep away the blues.
"The good news is that with age comes happiness," said study author Yang Yang, a University of Chicago sociologist. "Life gets better in one's perception as one ages."
A certain amount of distress in old age is inevitable, including aches and pains and the deaths of loved ones and friends. But older people generally have learned to be more content with what they have than younger adults, Yang said.
This is partly because older people have learned to lower their expectations and accept their achievements, said Duke University aging expert Linda George. An older person may realize "it's fine that I was a schoolteacher and not a Nobel prize winner."
George, who was not involved in the new study, believes the research is important because people tend to think that "late life is far from the best stage of life, and they don't look forward to it."
Yang's findings are based on periodic face-to-face interviews from 1972 to 2004 with a nationally representative sample of Americans. About 28,000 people 18 to 88 years old took part.
There were ups and downs in overall happiness levels during the study, generally corresponding with good and bad economic times. But at every stage, older Americans were the happiest.
While younger blacks and poor people tended to be less happy than whites and wealthier people, those differences faded as people aged.
In general, the odds of being happy increased 5 percent with every 10 years of age.
However, Yang's study also found that baby boomers were the least happy. So far, they aren't lowering their aspirations at the same rate that earlier generations did.
"They still seem to believe that they should have it all," George said. "They're still thinking about having a retirement that's going to let them do everything they haven't done yet."
They could end up living the unfortunate old-age stereotype if they can't let go of their achievement-driven mind-set, George said.
Overall, about 33 percent of Americans reported being very happy at age 88, versus about 24 percent of those age 18 to their early 20s. And throughout the study years, most Americans reported being very happy or pretty happy. Less than 20 percent said they were not too happy.
A separate University of Chicago study found that about 75 percent of people aged 57 to 85 engage in one or more social activities at least every week. Those include socializing with neighbors, attending religious services, volunteering or going to group meetings.
Those in their 80s were twice as likely as those in their 50s to do at least one of these activities.
Both studies appear in April's American Sociological Review.
Previous research also has shown that midlife tends to be the most stressful time, said Cornell University sociologist Elaine Wethington.
"Everyone's asking you to do things and you have a lot to do. You're less happy because you feel hassled."
The new studies show "if you can make it through that," there's light at the end of the tunnel, Wethington said.