“Happiness changes color throughout life”

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Of: Pamela Dorhofer


People in the “third age”, between around 65 and 85, would be the happiest. ©Getty Images

Doctor Tobias Esch explains why older people are generally happier than younger people and what role the brain plays in this.

Older people are generally happier and more satisfied than young adults and middle-aged people, says Dr. Tobias Esch. The director of the Institute for Integrative Healthcare and Health Promotion at the University of Witten/Herdecke has published a policy paper in the specialist magazine “Biology”. He provides an explanation of the “gratification paradox” and at the same time summarizes the results of his many years of research into the brain’s reward system.

Mr. Esch, how come old people are happier than young people, even though they often have health problems and can’t do many things like before? This contradicts the common image that many have of old age.

This is why we call it the satisfaction paradox. When we speak of happiness, we distinguish three states. One is the so-called moment of happiness, euphoria, thrill – the ecstatic feeling of anticipation, which, however, as everyone knows, is fleeting. The second state, on the other hand, is the unpleasant relief-happiness that occurs when unhappiness ends. The third can be described as happiness or contentment, a state in which I feel neither anticipation nor the urge to walk away from something unpleasant, but I have a feeling that everything is going to be okay. This third type of happiness applies to many older people, they are happier than other age groups. And, yes, one wonders how this is possible in the face of the increase in ailments that make many things more difficult. The crucial point here is probably that as people get older, they become more and more emancipated from these things, for example from the idea that a healthy body and things that come from outside are determining factors for happiness. Older people find inner joy and contentment.

Why then persists the idea that aging is synonymous with difficulties and that the elderly tend to be less well off?

The cliché of the lonely and therefore embittered elderly person is not true. In fact, data shows that people in their 30s are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression as people in their 60s and 70s. However, the satisfied older person usually doesn’t feel the need to show the world that they are okay. Those we hear and perceive are the dissatisfied. But if you ask the elderly directly, you get the answer disproportionately: I’m fine.

According to his findings, this self-assessment has a lot to do with the fact that what is perceived as happiness changes over the course of life.

Happiness changes “color” over the course of life. For adolescents and young adults, happiness is characterized by anticipation, desire, and ecstasy. In the middle phase of life, there are often tensions due to conflict at work and in the family, stress and excessive demands, including burnout, financial problems and the first serious illnesses. If these burdens temporarily disappear, this relief is perceived as happiness. Happiness in old age, on the other hand, is the feeling of being in the right place at the right time, of being at peace with oneself. Over the course of a lifetime, this movement from anticipation to avoidance of stress upon arrival unfolds like a U-curve.

They write that happiness is not a cognitive construct, but a feeling based on the physiological activity of the brain’s reward and motivation systems. Can you explain how this relates to your three-step model?

We have seen that different areas of the brain and different messenger substances are responsible for the three states of happiness and that these also result biochemically from each other. The joy of anticipation is characterized above all by the release of dopamine in the brain’s own reward system, while the autoregulated modulation of stress hormones – such as cortisol and adrenaline – signals inner relief there. And finally, endogenous opiates are released as a “degradation product” of these two states and the messenger substances involved: bliss. Oxytocin, the attachment hormone, is also involved in this and is also increasingly released, especially in the elderly, with the exception of early mother-child bonding.

They describe the biological processes behind the different states of happiness. But what influence do external factors have?

It’s a fascinating subject. There is also the question of how much happiness is culturally shaped. Surprisingly, we find this U-curve of happiness in virtually every country in the world, even in the poorest and whether or not there is a war. We think it’s a universal principle, although we don’t think it’s completely separate from cultural factors. But this seems to be a very old biological principle, the corresponding messenger substances being already found in simpler creatures like mussels and snails.

What role do individual factors such as lifestyle play?

We know a few. Exercise is one of them, not smoking and general health behaviors. The social factor plays a very important role. For example, the nearly 80-year-old Harvard Study of Adult Development showed that many particularly happy people continue to be part of a social community well into old age. The feeling of being part of a “we” has a major impact on life satisfaction. It also includes giving something of yourself, having some sort of legacy. Also closely related to this is the feeling of being able to feel some meaning in life, the belief that there is something that is greater than oneself. Finally, the last factor that plays a role is the ability to recognize things that are no longer there to be able to let go internally, whether on the subject of health or partnership. You can definitely train it. However: Although these factors have an influence, they do not seem to be able to override the basic principle described.

How important is money?

It is important as long as someone has financial worries. When people have basic security, the importance of money becomes less and less important.

Are there gender differences?

Yes, it’s quite interesting: in men, the U-curve is steeper downwards and then steeper upwards. Their nadir is lower than that of women, but at age 63, men surpass them in life satisfaction. Reliable statements can no longer be made for people over the age of about 75, because on average men die about five years earlier than women.

When you talk about older people, what age group are you talking about specifically? The range is enormous, people in their 60s are often referred to as “old people”, but some people also live to be 100.

Science speaks today of four ages: youth, which ends between 20 and 25 years old, adulthood from 25 to 59 years old, today rather 65 years old, then the third age, which begins with retirement and lasts until about 80 or 85 years of age, and finally until after the fourth age. In old age, people are the happiest. In the fourth, diseases increase rapidly in a relatively short period of time, which ultimately leads to death. The beginning is not set in stone and has been pushed back more and more over the last decades. In this last phase of life, life satisfaction usually decreases again. But there are also more and more studies in which the very old, the centenarians, also occupy a special place. The Heidelberg Centenarian Study and other Havard studies have shown that almost 80% of over-100s still say: My life fits in well – they have a basic level of satisfaction, despite all the limitations.

What are the effects of long-term care and dementia?

It is difficult to determine because there is not enough data on this subject yet. We believe it is difficult to maintain a high level of satisfaction when people are in need of care, are bedridden and suffer from chronic pain. But even that need not be the case. Surprisingly, the loss of mental abilities does not seem to have as much impact on happiness. This could be related to the fact that happiness is not primarily a cognitive process, not something subject to rational evaluation.

Interview: Pamela Dorhofer

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