Old Age and Happiness: Some Common Misconceptions

Older couple with bikes.

Thomas Hansen, a researcher at Norwegian Social Research (NOVA), a research institute that is part of OsloMet, has conducted research on ageing and quality of life over a period of many years.

“There are a number of stereotypes out there about old age that aren’t necessarily true. Growing old isn’t be as bad as it’s made out to be,” he says.

In what follows, we’ll look more closely at some of the more stubborn myths surrounding old age.

Myth 1: Old People Are Lonelier Than Young People

“The general public, including old people themselves, have a distorted notion of how lonely older people are. In reality, loneliness is not more common among old people than among younger people, at least up until a certain age,” Hansen explains.

People in their late 60’s and early 70’s are not any lonelier than the rest of the population. In fact, the opposite is true. “Loneliness is consistently low well into old age,” Hansen tells us. “A 70-year-old, in fact, is more satisfied with his life than any other age group.”

Whether you have children or not matters very little for your quality of life in older age. – Thomas Hansen

Later, as people's health declines and they begin to lose people close to them, their levels of satisfaction with their lives begin to decline.

Whereas only two out of ten people between the ages of 40 and 75 reporting feeling lonely sometimes or often, nearly four in ten reporting feeling this way after turning 75.

“Loneliness is far more common among the oldest segment of the population,” the NOVA researcher explains. “But the loneliness that people report experiencing tends to come and go and not be particularly severe.”

Only five to eight per cent of people in all age groups say that they frequently feel lonely or suffer from a more serious form of loneliness.

Myth 2: Children Are an Insurance Policy Against Old Age Loneliness

There is a commonly held belief that having children and grandchildren will help ward off loneliness and depression later in life. The research suggests that this is not the case for older people in western countries like Norway.

“Whether you have children or not matters very little for your quality of life in older age. It’s not true that you’re at greater risk of being lonely and depressed without children and grandchildren,” Hansen explains.

In the same way older people are not more irritable than younger people, men are no more grumpy than women. – Thomas Hansen

In collaboration with colleagues Britt Slagsvold and Torbjørn Moum, Hansen has looked into the role children play in influencing quality of life among people between the ages of 40 and 80. They discovered that having children does not appear to increase quality of life. This applies both to quality of life in general and loneliness more specifically.

“This finding is surprising, but it may suggest that it’s day-to-day social interactions that are most important for older people. Children can also be a source of disappointment and worry.”

Myth 3: Loneliness Has Been on the Rise in Recent Years

Another common myth is that a growing focus on the individual in society has resulted in more loneliness among older people in recent years.

“The Nordic countries have high divorce rates and more people living alone. We are also perhaps less social than before and spend more time in front of a screen. However, we are not seeing an increase in loneliness among older people,” says the OsloMet researcher.

On the contrary, loneliness has in stabilised in recent decades, even decreasing somewhat among the general population.

"Loneliness and mental health problems have nonetheless increased among adolescents and young adults, and among girls in particular,” he explains.

Myth 4: Old Men Are More Irritable

The grumpy old man is an easily recognisable figure in popular culture. But is it the case that older men are afflicted by negative feelings like depression, irritation, anger and discontentment more than women?

“In the same way older people are not more irritable than younger people, men are no more grumpy than women. There are not many differences in negative emotions experienced by women and men,” Hansen tells us.

Nor is there any evidence to suggest that men become more irritable with age than they were earlier in life.

Myth 5: Older People in Northern Europe Are More Lonely

Many people believe that older people in more individualistic cultures like those found in northwest Europe are lonelier than their counterparts in South-eastern Europe.

Hansen has looked into loneliness in eleven countries and has found that the phenomenon is more widespread in countries such as Romania, Russia and Georgia than in Norway.

This notion carries no weight. “Older people are more often lonely in collectivist countries in Southern and Eastern Europe than their counterparts in Northern Europe,” Hansen explains. “In some Eastern European countries, levels of loneliness are up to five times higher than they are here in Norway.”

The sorts of people who participate in surveys like this one tend to be those with more resources. – Thomas Hansen

Hansen’s findings indicate that more than half of the differences between the countries can be linked to health, relationship status and socio-economic differences.

As the researcher puts it: “Perhaps there features of individualistic countries that entail some degree of loneliness. Yet superior living conditions and greater opportunities to participate and live a full life more than make up for any such features.”

“Differences in cultural norms and welfare systems in the different countries can also help account for the significant differences we observe,” Hansen adds.

Even if research on quality of life in old age demonstrates that old age in Norway is not as bad as it is made out to be, the same does not apply to advanced old age.

“Many of the stereotypes we hold about old age are borne out when we look at the higher end of the age spectrum, Hansen tells us. “After the age of 75 to 80, quality of life decreases, and more people become lonely and depressed.”

Hansen also emphasises that his research findings may well paint a picture of old age that is a bit too rosy.

“The sorts of people who participate in surveys like this one tend to be those with more resources. People who are worse off or struggling will often not participate in such surveys,” Hansen cautions.

References

Hansen, T., Slagsvold, B. Late-Life Loneliness in 11 European Countries: Results from the Generations and Gender Survey. Soc Indic Res (2016) 129: 445 (link.springer.com).

Hansen, T., & Slagsvold, B. (2012). The age and subjective well-being paradox revisited:A multidimensional perspective. Norsk Epidemiologi, 22(2) (ntnu.no)

Abstract in English: Hansen, T. Myter og fakta om foreldrelykke. Tidsskrift for Norsk psykologforening, 7/2013: 664-668 (psykologtidsskriftet.no)

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Published: 12/9/19
Last updated: 1/27/20
Text: Heidi Ertzeid

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