Studies from AARP, the National Opinion Research Center and elsewhere offer us a new understanding of who is happy, and perhaps more importantly, why some people are happier than others. The bad news: Baby boomers in general are not as happy as the generations that went before them. The good news: People tend to get happier as they grow older.
Here are seven factors that contribute to your level of happiness and what you can do about them:
1. Be the right age. Studies show that, in general, people are the least happy between their mid-40s and early or mid-50s. This is a time when stress is at its highest. Your career is peaking, even as you may be getting sick and tired of your job. Your children are going through difficult years and coping with the anxiety of getting into college and then landing a job. Your financial obligations are at their most intense, as you perhaps strive to pay for college while you help aging parents deal with end-of-life issues. The good news is that your 60s can be the happiest years of your life, as both family and workplace tensions ease, and your financial future seems more settled. The early years of retirement, when you have lots of free time and the good health to enjoy it, tend to be your happiest years.
2. Enjoy good health. There's no question, good health is strongly correlated with being happy. People who say they're in poor health almost always report lower levels of happiness than people who are in good shape. But it works the other way around, too. Happy people eat better, get more exercise, suffer less stress and so they end up living healthier, longer lives.
3. Keep your friends and family close. Regardless of health issues, having good relationships with both family and friends is a major factor in how happy you are. Seeing your children become successful adults, watching your grandchildren grow up and sharing in the accomplishments of good friends are all important ingredients to achieving greater levels of happiness. These personal relationships bring more intense and longer lasting feelings of happiness than enjoying good entertainment or educational activities, or even making progress toward your own individual goals. Yet, paradoxically, the number of friends you have on Facebook or any social network has no bearing on how happy you are.
4. Savor your marriage. No matter how many friends they have, the happiest people find great fulfillment in sharing everyday moments with their close intimate partner. Married people feel more secure, valued and connected than singles. Studies show that married people are happier than they would have been if they hadn't gotten married, and one Michigan State University study concluded that marriage can protect against a potential age-related decline in happiness. For the record, men are happier with their marriages than women, and the marital happiness boost also occurs in committed long-term couples who are not married.
5. Own a pet. A good relationship with a pet is also a strong indication of happiness, particularly among singles and older women. Pets provide companionship, relieve stress and can help keep you active. Nobody knows who's happier, dog owners or cat owners. But according to at least one source, pet owners over age 65 make 30 percent fewer visits to their doctors than those without any pets.
6. Money helps. Money does not guarantee happiness, but recent research from the Brookings Institution does demonstrate a strong correlation between wealth and happiness. Not only does happiness increase as your income rises, but two economists at the University of Michigan, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, concluded that the richer you are the happier you are, saying, "The relationship between well-being and income is roughly linear-log and does not diminish as incomes rise."
7. Develop a good attitude. No matter what your marital status or annual income, research shows that those who feel more in control of their lives and more in control of their emotions are twice as happy as those who believe their level of happiness is either in their genes or otherwise out of their control. Making lists is one simple way to increase feelings of control. Make lists of things you have to do to help organize and prioritize your life. List things you're grateful for, as well as things that give you small pleasures, to bolster your level of positive thinking.
Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.