Not-so-grumpy old men

As economy picks up, older Americans most likely to be happy as overall mood darkens, study finds

May 31, 2013 @ 12:54 pm

By Liz Skinner

Many Americans are simply not happy with how things are going for them, even though the U.S. economy continues to tick upward ever so slightly.

A new “happiness” survey by Harris Interactive shows only about 33% of the population is very happy, a level that has remained steady for about three years. A deeper look at the results suggests older Americans — often portrayed as easily annoyed and ill-willed — actually may be responsible for much of the positive energy.

Financial planners said one reason older Americans are more likely to be happy is that they are less likely to be among the "sandwich" generation that is forced to help aging parents at the same time they are raising kids or even having to deal with adult children who don't have fruitful jobs.

Adviser Harold Evensky said things may just be easier after age 50.

“Jobs are generally well established, children are on their own,” he said. “Life is simpler, hence happier.”

Graying Americans also may have more equity in their homes, while younger Americans may be underwater on their mortgages.

And then there are the population segments where happiness scores have fallen since 2011, beginning with college graduates.

The recent survey suggests that about 32% of college graduates are very happy, down from 35% two years ago, the last time the survey was conducted. The challenging job market that has left those with brand-new college degrees sitting on the employment sidelines may be to blame, according to Harris analysts.

The nation's continued economic struggles are the likely reason that Americans earning less than $50,000 are less likely to be happy today than they were two years ago, with 29% considered very happy this year, compared with 33% in 2011, the poll showed.

Harris, which interviewed 2,345 U.S. adults in April, calculates its index based on whether respondents say they strongly agree with certain positive statements, such as, “I rarely worry about my health,” and if they strongly disagree with negative statements like, “I frequently worry about my financial situation.”

Using this rating, older Americans are most likely to be very happy. About 41% of adults over age 65 rank highest on the happiness scale, and 36% of people age 50 to 64 are very happy.

The least likely to be happy are those 30 to 39, with about 28% of this group falling in the very happy category. About 30% of those 18 to 29 or 40 to 49 are considered very happy.

Possible reasons for the drop off? Younger Americans may have gotten into the equity markets just in time to see two 50% losses in value since 2000. And some may still be strapped with their own student loans, incurred as college costs escalated beyond inflation, even while they are trying to save for their own kids' higher education.

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