A large study in South Korea exploring the relationship between age and well-being revealed that whether well-being improves in advanced age or not depends on the personality traits of agreeableness and neuroticism. Notably, well-being did not increase in advanced age in people with low agreeableness and high neuroticism. The study was published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-being.
Researchers studying how happiness and well-being change with age in the past decades reported an interesting relationship. Going towards midlife, happiness tends to decrease. As people move towards midlife, on average, they become less and less happy. However, once midlife passes, their happiness and well-being start to increase again.
This was reported both by studies that compared people of different ages (i.e., cross-sectional) and those that followed the same people for years as they aged (i.e., longitudinal). Scientists refer to this type of relationship as a U-shape relationship because this trend that happiness first decreases and then increases again after midlife resembles the letter U.
However, some more recent studies challenged this view, noting that studies exploring this relationship were not consistent in their findings. While properties of study methodologies and assessment methods used can likely explain some of these inconsistencies, an important factor to consider is personality. Personality traits are well-known to be associated with well-being. It is entirely possible that they affect the way in which happiness and well-being change with age.
Study author Joo Hyun Kim and her colleagues wanted to test whether the U-shaped relationship between age and well-being found in studies in other countries is also present in South Korea, given its specific cultural context. They also wanted to examine if personality traits might be linked to how happiness and well-being change towards advanced age.
They organized an online survey of well-being and personality through an online survey platform launched by the Center for Happiness Studies at Seoul National University and Kakao Corporation (http://together.kakao.com/hello). Participants were 10,456 individuals ranging in age from 14 to 75 years. The average age of participants was 30. Women constituted 85% of participants.
Participants completed assessments of subjective well-being, expressed through its three components – life satisfaction (“How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?”), positive affect (happy, pleasant, and relaxed) and negative affect (bored, annoyed, depressed, and anxious). Personality was conceptualized as the five personality traits of the Big Five personality model, namely neuroticism, agreeableness, extroversion, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. These were assessed using a 50-item scale created from the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP). Participants reported their years of birth, from which researchers calculated participants’ age.
Results showed that differences between age groups really constitute a U-shaped curve. More precisely, for positive affect and life satisfaction, it was U-shaped. For negative affect, it had an inverted U-shape. This means that negative emotions were the highest in midlife participants and lower in both younger and older age groups.
Most importantly, personality traits of agreeableness and neuroticism changed the shape of the relationship between well-being and age. For people with high agreeableness, well-being was increasing sharply with the age of participants past midlife. For participants low in agreeableness, the curve showed no relationship between age and well-being or even reversed its shape. Overall, differences in well-being between people with different agreeableness levels were much larger for older and younger groups.
When neuroticism was considered, results were similar. The U-shape relationship between age and well-being was the most pronounced for participants low in neuroticism. For participants high in neuroticism, the curve depicting the relationship became flat, but did not reverse its shape. The other three personality traits were not associated with the shape of this link.
The study provides a valuable contribution to scientific understanding of changes in well-being with age. However, it should be taken into account that the study compared people of different age and not the same people as they aged. Due to this, observed effects might also be due to differences between generations. Additionally, study participants were overwhelmingly female. Results on male samples might be different.
The study, “Older people are not always happier than younger people: The moderating role of personality”, was authored by Joo Hyun Kim, Eunsoo Choi, Namhee Kim, and Incheol Choi.