Yang was also surprised that general levels of happiness didn't grow over the years, even as America became a richer country. "Over time, the happiness level is quite stable," Yang said.
The survey results also showed that differences in happiness by gender, race and education level lessened as people aged.
Still, the gap between blacks and whites persisted in the most recent 10-year period, even as the happiness levels of men and women evened out, Yang said.
And what of the Baby Boomers and their supposed inability to be as happy as other generations? "This is probably due to the fact that the generation as a group was so large, and their expectations were so great, that not everyone in the group could get what he or she wanted as they aged due to competition for opportunities," Yang said in a statement. "This could lead to disappointment that could undermine happiness."
As for the seeming happiness of older people, there are plenty of theories. One explanation "has to do with the human tendency to make social comparisons: If people compare themselves to others and figure they're better off than some other people their age, they are likely to feel happier than if they think they're worse off than others," said Rosemary Blieszner, a professor of human development at Virginia Tech.
Perception may play a role in the big picture. Americans assume that older people are unhappy, because they seem to have "no exciting jobs, no passionate sex lives, and poor health and a lot of wrinkles," said Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Riverside.
The reality may be very different.
In another study in the same issue of the journal, University of Chicago researchers reported that, contrary to popular thought, older people do stay social as they age, often volunteering, attending religious services, and spending time with their neighbors.
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