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Why older people are happier than the young in much of the world

Why older people are happier than the young in much of the world

Published on

27 Mar 2024

Published by

The Straits Times

The latest World Happiness Report sheds light on the sharp divisions in happiness among different age groups.


The World Happiness Report 2024, which was released last week, starts with a reference to William Shakespeare’s famous passage in his play, As You Like It, on the seven ages of man, in which old age is portrayed as deeply depressing – a “second childishness and mere oblivion”, in the words of the Bard.


But it turns out that in our time, that is far from true in much of the world. One of the most striking findings of the report is that in several countries, those aged 60 and above are happier than those below 30.


For the first time in its 12-year history, the report gives separate rankings of self-evaluated happiness by age group, which in many cases vary widely from the overall rankings of happiness for all age groups taken together.


For instance, the overall ranking of the United States is 23rd, falling below the top 20 for the first time, but the ranking of Americans aged 60 and above is 10th, while that for people below 30 is 62nd.


The report, which was compiled by some of the world’s leading well-being scientists using global data from the polling firm Gallup, covers 143 countries and territories.


Finland tops the list of happiness rankings for the seventh year in a row, while four other Nordic countries – Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and Norway – make it into the top seven.


A key feature of the overall rankings is that none of the most populous rich countries are in the top 10, which is dominated by countries with smaller populations.


Even in the top 20, only Britain and Canada have populations of more than 30 million.


Happier older people


Singapore’s overall ranking is 30th – which makes it the happiest in Asia. The happiness ranking of its 60-and-above cohort is 26th – again, the best in Asia – but the ranking for its below-30 age group is 54th, below that of Taiwan (25th) and Thailand (45th).


Other places where happiness rankings for older people are higher than for the young include Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and South Korea.


There may be many reasons for this. In general, older people in several countries, including Singapore, have the benefits of pensions and other retirement plans, good-quality healthcare as well as avenues to engage in hobbies and social activities, which experts consider to be conducive to greater happiness.


But there are also likely to be country-specific reasons. In the US and much of Western Europe, for instance, the group known as the baby boomers – those born in the “baby boom” years between 1946 and 1964 – are the wealthiest segments of their populations, having spent most of their working lives in times of relatively rapid economic growth and low unemployment.


There may also be country-specific reasons to explain why many of the young are less happy than their previous generations.


Many of the young have borne the brunt of lower economic growth and economic shocks including repeated recessions and economic crises, as in the global financial crisis of 2008, which hit workers in the US and Western Europe especially badly.


In Japan, the young did not enjoy the benefits of high economic growth or lifetime employment, which the previous generation did from the 1960s to the 1980s.


In Britain, Brexit, initiated in 2016, negatively affected young people and their opportunities more than older groups.


In many countries, rising asset prices put home ownership beyond the reach of young people. And some large economies, such as China, India and South Africa, suffered from high youth unemployment.


In China, the happiness ranking of the old being 49 places above that of the young (30th versus 79th) may also reflect the fact that the old have witnessed dramatic improvements in their standards of living as economic growth took off since the opening of the Chinese economy in the late 1970s, whereas the young, having grown up in relative affluence, have not felt as much difference in their lives.


Angst in Singapore’s young


In the case of Singapore, experts have identified several reasons that lead to unhappiness among young people. An article in The Straits Times last week pointed out that young people are more prone to anxiety and depression than their older peers, according to findings by Canada-based health technology services provider Telus, and lack trusted workplace relationships.


Other experts point to high living costs and concerns related to home ownership and job security, as well as pressures on young people to prove themselves in today’s more competitive work environment compared with a generation ago.


Singapore’s old have also benefited disproportionately from the significant expansion in healthcare spending in recent years, including subsidies which have targeted them, such as the Pioneer and Merdeka packages.


Many have also enjoyed increases in their asset values – particularly property – since the 1970s, which the under-30 generation has not.


Where the young are happier


By contrast, there are some countries where the young are happier than their older fellow citizens. They include several countries in Central and Eastern Europe and parts of Latin America.


In some cases, the happiness rankings for the young are more than 40 places higher than for the old, as in Croatia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Serbia, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Lithuania and Paraguay.


According to the report, this is partly explained by the fact that in Central and Eastern Europe, some of the older populations “bear the most scars from the early 1990s wars and genocide following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia”.


Other older people in the region, as in Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania, spent much of their working lives under communism, which limited their earning capacities and led to various deprivations.


A particularly dramatic case is Lithuania, where the happiness ranking of the under-30 age group tops the world, while that of those 60 and above is 44th.


The young are also happier than the old in some countries of Latin America, including Argentina, Chile and Peru, besides Paraguay, which could be partly attributed to some of these countries making the transition to democratic forms of government in the 1990s, after long periods of misrule by military dictatorships, and – with the notable exception of Argentina – achieving relatively stable economies after suffering prolonged debt crises during the 1980s, which scarred their currently older generations.


Two other findings from the report are worth flagging. One relates to changes in happiness between 2006-2010 and 2022-2023. Several rich countries or territories grew less happy over these two periods, including Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Hong Kong, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain and the US.


Many of their rankings for changes in happiness were brought down by the drop in the happiness rankings of their younger populations.


This is true of Singapore too – it was ranked 81st for changes in happiness between the two periods, which cover a total of 17 years. Besides the drop in the happiness of the young, slower economic growth and higher living costs may also be part of the explanation.


Among those highly ranked for changes in happiness between the two periods – meaning that they became happier – the top three were Serbia, Bulgaria and Latvia. Another standout performer was China – ranked sixth – which may be explained by the marked improvement in living standards, particularly for the middle-aged and the old, amid continued high economic growth for most of that period.


Happiness inequality matters


Another important finding is that the inequality of happiness – how equally happiness is distributed among the population – matters.


People are happier living in countries where happiness is more evenly distributed than where it is skewed towards some sections of the population.


The report cites research which shows that “happiness inequality” has a bigger effect on a country’s overall happiness than even income inequality – although that is also important.


It points out that, unfortunately, happiness inequality has increased by more than 20 per cent in the last dozen years.


The only region that is the exception is Western Europe, whose outperformance may be explained by its stronger social safety nets and more inclusive social compacts, which are key features of, especially, Nordic countries, which score high on overall happiness.


Issues of methodology


The happiness rankings are based on people’s self-assessments of their lives. But the report points out that there are six key variables that explain more than three-quarters of the rankings across countries and years.


These are gross domestic product per capita, healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, freedom to make life choices, generous behaviour and freedom from corruption.


These make sense, but self-evaluations of happiness are subject to important caveats.


For instance, behavioural economist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman drew a distinction between happiness as experienced and happiness as remembered.


In a TED talk, he cited the example of a person who had been listening to a symphony. It was glorious music, but at the end, there was a dreadful screeching sound. Recalling the event, the person said the ending ruined the whole experience.


“But it hadn’t,” said Dr Kahneman. “What it had ruined was the memory of the experience.” Twenty minutes of glorious music had counted for nothing, as the person was left with a negative memory at the end, which was all he had kept.


It is notable that the happiness rankings in the report refer to happiness as remembered, which may be different from happiness as experienced.


Finally, there is the fact that happiness is typically short-lived, resulting, for example, from having a good meal, a good night’s sleep or a pleasant vacation.


What we really want to understand is a longer-term state of contentment and well-being, or life satisfaction. That is what is supposed to be captured by the World Happiness Report, which probably needs another name.



Source: The Straits Times © SPH Media Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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