So why do we tend to think of older people as primarily depressed and unhappy, a perception that seems to be supported by the fact that the elderly have the highest suicide rates, when they themselves often report being happier now than when they were younger — and when studies show well-being rises after mid-life?
One reason for the happiness and suicide rates being at-odds could be related to the fact that happiness ratings often rely on general population figures, not measures of particular individuals, which can be much more varied. As data from several Scandinavian countries shows, it’s possible for a country to lead the world in both population happiness and suicide rates. While the reasons aren’t clear — perhaps the cold, dark winters are difficult to take for some, or perhaps being depressed when everyone around you is happy is even harder to take — the conflicting trends do occur simultaneously.
“It does seem like a paradox, but both happiness and depression can increase with age,” says Sutin. It is possible to swing between the two states and it is also possible that age pushes people to one extreme or another. “With age, people tend to become more emotional and experience both sadness and happiness,” she says. That could account in part for why we tend to see the elderly as sad: the sadness is both more visible and more congruent with our expectations about this stage of life.“
Especially when we’re young, it’s really easy to look at older adults and see the loss: loss of youth, loss of mobility, loss of loved ones,” Sutin says. “We assume that all of that loss would make older adults unhappy. It’s harder to see the benefits of aging: feelings of pride for children and grandchildren, a meaningful career, more confidence, wisdom. There are a lot of reasons to be happy in older adulthood, but they may not be as visible as the losses.” When they are, however, it turns out that happiness is one of the benefits that come with age.