happy elderly woman and her husband drinking wine and happiness

Aging Brings Us Closer to Death. Why Do We Get Happier as We Age?

Editor’s note: The following article is by Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, an expert in artificial intelligence for drug discovery and aging research. He is also the author of The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biotechnology Will Impact the Global Economy. The premise of the following essay is that feelings of intense grief, intense joy, or the thrill of a new accomplishment all fade in time as we return to the more neutral mood state in which we spend most of our lives.

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“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back” —Marcus Aurelius

For Sonja Lyubormirsky, University of California psychologist and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want, having her vision corrected by Lasik surgery left her feeling “ecstatic.” Suffering from poor vision since the age of 12, Lyubormirsky gained perfect vision after a lifetime of blurriness. The transformation seemed miraculous. Unfortunately, however, that sense of joy faded quickly Lyubormirsky told an audience at the 2006 American Psychological Association convention. In little more than a week, she began taking her new, improved vision for granted. 

Her reason for sharing this anecdote is to show how quickly people adapt to changes in their lives, both positive and negative.  Even for people who have endured horrific disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—among other more recent tragedies—life slowly moves on for them.  

In the same way, people who experience joyful events such as getting married or the birth of a first child find that joy fading as they adjust to how their lives have changed.  While we like to think this kind of happiness can last forever, the reality is that we all have an emotional set point to which we return, time and again, no matter what kind of life-changing experience we may encounter. This is known as the “hedonic treadmill,” something to which Lyubomirsky and other researchers have dedicated years of their lives exploring. 

If you’re looking for help, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

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Hedonic Treadmill or Hedonic Adaptation

First coined by psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell in a 1971 research study, the hedonic treadmill refers to how people adapt to emotional events, whether positive or negative. Just as our eyes adapt when we enter a dark room and our noses adjust to the smell of manure on visiting a farm, we also adjust to significant life events, no matter how happy or unhappy they make us feel at the time.

In one of their original studies, Brickman and Campbell examined a sample of 22 lottery winners, 29 paralyzed accident victims, and 22 matched controls.  The lottery winners had all received substantial windfalls ranging from $50,000 to more than $1,000,000, while the accident victims were all recruited from a major rehabilitation institute (11 paraplegics and 18 quadriplegics.) The control subjects were all recruited from the same areas of the city in which the lottery winners lived and matched for age and income.

All participants were interviewed about how their lives had changed and how happy they expected to be in another 2 years.  They were also asked to rate how pleasant they found 7 different everyday activities: talking to a friend, buying clothes, hearing a funny joke, reading a magazine, etc.

When asked about future happiness, though, their ratings were no different than for the other 2 groups despite being well aware that their paralysis was permanent

Results showed that, while lottery winners generally felt very good about their winnings, there was no difference in general happiness between them and the control subjects. As for the paralysis victims, they understandably rated themselves as being generally unhappy with their present circumstances. When asked about future happiness, though, their ratings were no different than for the other 2 groups despite being well aware that their paralysis was permanent.

Not Everyone Responds the Same Way

Do we really adapt to all extraordinary events (whether happy or sad) in the same way, though? Brickman and Campbell’s research appears to say yes. However, just as we all have different personalities, we also have different genetics, early life experiences, and attitudes shaping how we respond to positive and negative life events.

Recent research studies looking at how people respond to stress over time suggest different trajectories for adapting to life-changing events, such as bereavement or divorce. In other words, it takes much longer to recover from some life-changing events than others.  More importantly, depending on how these events affect us, our set-points can be permanently changed, leaving us a little more prone to happiness or sadness as a result.

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With the loss of a spouse, for example, how well people adapt afterward often depends on their inner resources as well as with the emotional support they receive immediately afterward. With older adults, in particular, true adaptation can fail to occur at all—leading to a downward spiral and premature death.

Also, just as people who have endured trauma are more vulnerable to future trauma, some happy events can make us more prone to future happiness—though the process of adapting still goes on. This is why the same adaptivity that helps us move on from trauma or heartbreak makes it impossible for us to feel perpetually joyful. Sad but true.

Research studies have already shown that . . . everyday annoyances can significantly impact physical and mental health, depending on how well we can cope with them.

The hedonic treadmill phenomenon doesn’t just apply to life-changing events.  We all encounter daily hassles that disrupt the typical pattern of our lives. Whether it involves forgetting our briefcase at home, not getting the car to start, minor fender-benders, etc., these hassles, while seemingly insignificant, can still cause stress over time. Research studies have already shown that these everyday annoyances can significantly impact physical and mental health, depending on how well we cope with them.

How Uplifted Are You?

At the same time, however, there are also “uplifts”: positive daily events that “make our day” and leave us feeling a little happier as a result. These uplifts can include unexpected praise at work or school, getting a compliment on our appearance, or having a pleasant conversation with a friend or neighbor.  

While there isn’t as much research on uplifts as daily hassles, some studies have shown that a modest link exists between uplifts and health measures, such as cortisol levels and inflammation markers. Again, though, much more research needs to be done to understand whether uplifts are as important as aggravations regarding health and well-being.

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What does this all mean as we grow older? While seniors are more physically vulnerable to stress, they also seem much better at regulating their emotions than younger people. A lifetime of experience usually means that older adults are much better at handling daily hassles and have a much more positive outlook in general. According to a 2014 study published in the journal Psychology and Aging, there does appear to be significant changes in how we handle uplifts and irritations as we grow older, as well as some surprising results.

Something Seems to Change After 67

Using data taken from the Veteran’s Administration Normative Aging Study (NAS), researchers at Oregon State University and Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine examined 1,315 men, aged 18 to 81, during a 16-year period. The participants also completed questionnaires about demographic data and how they dealt with hassles and uplifts as well as regular biomedical exams. Researchers found that, as people grew older, daily hassles had less impact on them, but only up to age 67 or so.  From that point on, the intensity ratings for hassles slowly increased.  

People reported steady increases in how they were affected by uplifts until around age 80 before steadily dropping as they passed that age.

With uplifts, however, there seems to be an entirely different trajectory. People reported steady increases in how they were affected by uplifts until around age 80, before steadily dropping as they passed that age—all of which suggests that, as we grow older, the hedonic treadmill starts to break down a bit, at least in terms of how we handle hassles and uplifts in our lives. Even with this in mind, however, it seems clear that hedonic adaptation represents a powerful survival mechanism conferred on us by evolution.  

How can we use these results to improve the overall quality of our lives? The key to effective use of the hedonic treadmill is to avoid letting our lives become too predictable and complacent.  That means getting out of our comfort zone once in a while, and putting our adaptivity to the test.  

Do not let your age define whether you can or cannot do something new. That is a trap that is best avoided.

While I would hardly recommend that you take up parasailing or some other extreme sport solely to boost your adrenaline levels, there is nothing wrong with trying new things and seeing how they affect you.  Above all else, do not let your age define whether you can or cannot do something new. That is a trap that is best avoided.

Start building social relationships with younger people (just not too young). For that matter, develop social relationships with significantly older people who look younger than their chronological age (think of them as mentors.) Cultivate lifetime learning by taking classes online or in person; attending a conference or two on topics that interest you; or learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument (including your singing voice if that interests you). Try out new ways of doing exercise, or join a research expedition (earthwatch.org is an excellent starting place). 

Conclusion: Use Hedonic Treadmill to Stay Young and Happy

Whatever you do, make sure you never become afraid of trying new things.  You may enjoy yourself, you might hate it, but always be willing to learn from what you experienced.

A study colleagues and I conducted recently—using deep learning techniques to predict human psychological and subjective age—showed that optimistic attitude towards health and the future in general is among the most important features contributing to youthful psychological profile. We are now testing a large number of hypotheses for how to help people strategically convince themselves to have a more optimistic outlook and a more positive attitude towards the future.

That is the best possible way of staying young.

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If you’re looking for help, sometimes you may need to bounce ideas off of a professional counselor.

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