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Life is Good, Especially for Older Americans

AARP Second Half of Life Study: In collaboration with National Geographic Partners

Happiness in older age isn’t about wealth, beauty, or any of the other standards typically associated with youth-driven pop culture. Instead, as people age, an optimism and contentment emerge in parallel with an alignment of expectations and realities. 

Overall self-reported happiness grows with age, with a striking spike among those age 70-plus, an AARP Research, in collaboration with National Geographic Partners, study reveals. Thirty-four percent of adults 80-plus and 27% of those in their 70s report they are “very happy,” compared to 21% of those 60 to 69, 18% of those 50 to 59 and 16% of those 40 to 49.

The research shows this increased happiness is bolstered by a focus on quality of life over quantity of years, and the importance of relationships and independence. Fielded in January 2022, the 15-minute survey of 2,580 US adults ages 18-plus found that older adults recognize the challenges of growing older but worry about them less as the years pass. Middle age by comparison is the time where life’s burdens take on the greatest prominence.

Stress, anxiety, and fear diminish with age. Even fear of death wanes as older adults focus on planning to minimize the burden and pain of others and finding peace. 

Relationships Matter

Friends, family, and community are the hallmarks of finding happiness, the study revealed. Relationships become a central feature and a source of purpose and joy as people age, particularly in retirement.

Relationships become most important as people reach their 70s and continue to strengthen on into their 80s, while concerns over finances, health, and purpose diminish. Still, people of various ages seem to understand that relationships are not made overnight, with many saying they take time to build and improve relationships in younger years to ensure they are in place as they age. 

The significance of strong relationships is tied to housing preferences, with people wanting to ensure they are near those they love. Even as people in their 80s realize they might need support, they want and expect to live independently. Being home with support from family and friends is the next-best option, preferred over having to hire help, the survey found.

Not Counting Years

Centenarians may be esteemed, but a fulfilling life isn’t about counting candles on a birthday cake. Despite medicine’s obsession with prolonging life, people are not overly concerned with how long they will live. As they age, this concern continues to diminish. 

Instead, individuals are more in tune with the quality of their lives. A long life should be gratifying, not simply a march through time, they feel. 

That doesn’t mean people aren’t taking steps for good health. In seeking quality of life, the focus on taking care of oneself increases over the decades in the second half of life. Caring for relationships, going to wellness and screening appointments, monitoring vitamin intake, eating fresh produce and engaging in exercise are all part of ensuring quality years to come.

Of note, when it came to a hypothetical offer of a pill to slow aging, the percentage of takers fell with age: 72% of adults ages 60 to 69, 68% of those 70 to 79, and 60% of those 80-plus. Offered a pill to extend life by a decade, the uptake was less, with slightly more than half of adults 60-plus saying they would want it.

“They say that these are the golden years, and to me it's the golden years as long as you're healthy,” said one participant between the ages 64 and 75. “So, one thing that I try to do is remain healthy. I exercise, I eat well, but then that allows me to do things that I enjoy doing, I enjoy playing basketball still, and at 68 years old I'm still playing basketball with 30-year-old kids. I'm not as good as I used to be, but I can still play, which is amazing. I like to travel with my wife. We travel around the world a couple times a year, and you need to be healthy and physically in shape to do that.”

Health and Wealth in Retirement

Health is a mindset. Financial concerns wane with age. And retirement allows for greater control of daily life. 

While money, mobility and brain health are all important to quality of life in older age, many are satisfied with their circumstances and less inclined to worry about future scenarios. 

Retirement, already planned for, allows older adults to choose how they spend their time. External pressures of others’ demands are not part of the equation as they engage in hobbies and visit with loved ones. In life’s second half, wealth and retirement concerns are secondary to health concerns. 

Even as people think about remaining healthy, they do so while accounting for inevitable health problems associated with aging. And again, such concerns peak in the 60s before actually falling in the 70s. Also, the type of health concerns change with age; for those in their 80s, stamina and heart health top the list of concerns, while emotional health is foremost on the minds of those under 40.

“I, of course, still have some health issues that irritate me,” explained one participant in the 65 to 74 age bracket. “They get in the way of doing everything that I want to do. But few people at 73 are able to do everything they want to do. Of course, you got your standouts, the biathlon or the joggers. No. I want to enjoy life, not kill myself trying to get through it. I want to be comfortable, want a roof over my head, food on a table, be able to travel, enjoy time with my husband.”

Methodology

AARP's Second Half of Life study, in collaboration with National Geographic Partners and with Heart+Mind Strategies, includes a survey and consumer interviews. The online and telephone survey of 2,580 adults age 18 and older was conducted in January 2022. Final data have been weighted to U.S. Census for analysis by age group, gender, census division, ethnicity, and education. In February and March 2022, 25 individual 30-minute interviews were conducted virtually with adults age 40 and older.

For more information, please contact Vicki Levy at vlevy@aarp.org. For media inquiries, please contact External Relations at media@aarp.org.

Suggested citation:

Levy, Vicki, and Patty David. AARP's Second Half of Life Study, in Collaboration with National Geographic Partners and Heart+Mind Strategies. Washington, DC: AARP Research, June 2022. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00538.001

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