In Brief

Life satisfaction, long thought to increase throughout adulthood, generally peaks around age 65 in men, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 1). However, while that's the average, there is much variation between individuals, found the study led by Daniel Mroczek, PhD, an associate psychology professor at Fordham University.

The study synthesizes more than 20 years of data from almost 2,000 men in the Veterans Affairs (VA) Normative Aging Study at the VA's outpatient clinic in Boston. The aging study, funded by the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health, recorded life satisfaction and personality traits of veterans starting in the late 1970s through 1999.

On average, men's overall life satisfaction dropped in late life, after peaking around 65, so that men around age 85 were about as happy as they were in the their mid-40s, Mroczek says.

"But people vary significantly from that overall growth curve," he says. "Some people may keep going up, some people may never peak and some just keep going down. Finding a pattern doesn't mean everyone abides by it."

Mroczek and his co-author Avron Spiro, PhD, an associate epidemiology professor at the Boston University School of Public Health, accounted for some of the variation with personality characteristics. They found that high levels of extroversion correlated with overall high levels of life satisfaction and relative stability in life satisfaction; men with lower levels of extroversion had an overall lower level of life satisfaction and less stability.

"So people with high extroversion are happier throughout life, but importantly, they're also more stable," Mroczek says.

Additionally, Mroczek and Spiro found a correlation between being in the last year of life and a steeper drop in life satisfaction--an effect that remained even when the researchers controlled for physical health. Causation is unclear--life satisfaction could compromise health--but Mroczek thinks it might be the other way around.

"It makes me think that when things are going on inside your body, you know something is wrong even when it's too subtle for doctors to find," Mroczek says. "Life satisfaction may be a more sensitive measure of impending death than physical health."

To further illuminate that curious finding, Mroczek says he plans to research whether changes in personality characteristics and psychological well-being predict mortality.