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Where Do the World's Happiest Older Adults Live?

The U.S. makes the global top 10 list for happiness among those 60+, and the top 20 for those in the 45-59 age group, says the new World Happiness Report


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That old adage that your best years are when you’re young might no longer be true — in the U.S., at least.

People age 60 and older are the happiest Americans, according to the latest World Happiness Report, based on survey data from Gallup that’s analyzed by scientists who specialize in well-being.

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While the U.S. fell down eight spots in its overall happiness rank, from 15th to 23rd (the first time the U.S. hasn’t made the top 20), the drop was due to a decline in happiness levels among younger generations, not older, according to the report released Tuesday. March 20 is the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness. 

In fact, Americans in the oldest age group, 60 and older, made the top 10 (coming in at number 10) in the world for happiest people. The age group just below, 45-59, was not far behind at number 17. 

Which other countries have the happiest older adults? Scandinavia dominated many of the top 10 lists for both older age groups. Why? It comes down to higher levels of happiness among all age groups fostered by a general trust in their social support system in Nordic countries, says John Helliwell, founding editor for the report and professor emeritus at the Vancouver School of Economics, University of British Columbia. When many people have access to elements of life that support well-being, the happiness levels are more equal (and higher) among different demographics in those countries, he says.

“It’s not just about what income you have. It’s what education you have access to, what health care you have access to, how safe are the streets in which you walk, how friendly are your neighbors, do you have access to equality of regard, regardless of your color, religion, or background?” When those are high, says Helliwell, then more people across demographics will be happy. Helliwell says Nordic countries have generally mastered that.

​For the 60-plus demographic, the list was topped by (in order): Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and the United States. At the bottom of the list: Lebanon, Zambia and, ranked last, Afghanistan. 

The Gallup survey asked respondents to think of a ladder, with the best possible life for them being a 10 and the worst possible life being a 0. They are then asked to rate their own current lives on that 0 to 10 scale. The data was analyzed by the Wellbeing Research Centre at the University of Oxford in the U.K. 

For ages 45-59, many of the same names show up in the top 10, albeit in a different order and with a couple of exceptions. Finland came in at number 1, followed by Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Israel, Luxembourg, Kuwait and Australia. 

The other countries that beat out the U.S. in this age group were Switzerland, Canada, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates. The least happy country for this age group was also Afghanistan.

Boomers and Gen X are doing OK. Millennials and Gen Z, not so much.

The U.S. rankings for those two oldest age groups were a stark contrast to the two younger demographics, the report notes. Americans ages 30-44 ranked number 42 on the global happiness charts, and for the under-30 crowd, it was an even longer scroll down the list to number 62. 

All age groups across the board in the U.S. dropped in their levels of happiness, Helliwell says. But the oldest demographic, 60-plus, dropped just slightly; it was the youngest group’s decline in rank that caused such a wide spread on the list between the two groups, he says. 

Why the ranking difference among different age groups?

Helliwell says older adults are happier because they’re able to brush off negativity more easily — a very good skill to have when surrounded by the doom and gloom people are peppered with in the news. He adds that his researchers have found that media in English-speaking countries is particularly negative. 

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“As you get older, you’re less likely to be subjected to the negativity bias. And you’re more likely to say, ‘OK, that’s just news … I’m better now able to say what life is about — it’s where I live, it’s my community, it’s my friends, it’s my family. It’s how people behave in the streets with me. It’s not what I read in the newspapers or on social media.”

It’s a global phenomenon, Helliwell says, that a kind of positivity effect builds up from middle age onward, even though as people get older their health gets worse and their social circles grow smaller. “But despite that, they’re able to put the bad things in context and concentrate on the good ones,” he says. “So that year by year, within this older sample, people are getting happier, even as their physical health is getting less.”

Another possible factor for the differences among the age groups in the U.S.: loneliness. The report states that loneliness peaks at age 20 in the U.S. and declines from there, meaning that the older you get the less lonely you are in America. 

In other parts of the world, the young are still as happy as the old

And it’s a reversal of status, too, for the two groups on either end of the age spectrum — a trend that the report says is happening in all of North America. In many other parts of the world, the young still dominate, or are at least on par with the old, in how happy they rank themselves. 

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In the U.S., all ages saw a drop in happiness levels, but the two younger generations saw the biggest drops. The happiest people in America are above 60, followed by 45-59, then the under-30 age group; and coming in last is the 30-44 demographic.

In North America, “happiness has fallen so sharply for the young that they are now less happy than the old. By contrast, in the transition countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the young are much happier than the old. In Western Europe as a whole happiness is similar at all ages, while elsewhere it tends to decline over the life cycle (with an occasional upturn for the old),” the report states. 

The relationship between dementia and happiness

The report, which picks different topics to focus on every year, spends one of its chapters this year on dementia.

The report authors chose it because of how dementia and well-being are intertwined — both in using well-being to prevent dementia and increasing the well-being among those already living with dementia.

​It’s an important issue, the report says, because by 2050 the world will have twice as many people age 65 and older and the number of dementia cases is expected to reach approximately 139 million. And with no cure yet for dementia, well-being might be one of the world’s greatest tools.

Brain health and dementia are two topics AARP has covered extensively. Our resources can be found here.

And what can you do to bring your country’s ranking a little higher?

What we’ve found is that happiness is really about local social connections, Helliwell says. And “everyone has the capacity to step out and help other people with a smile,” he says, adding that it really can make a difference.

As for him, he ranks his happiness at a 9.

The World Happiness Report is a collaboration among Gallup, the Oxford Wellbeing Research Centre, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the report’s editorial board. You can read the full report at worldhappiness.report.

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