News: Generation Trap

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

We have control over many of the decisions that shape our life satisfaction, but some of the most reliable predictors of long-term well-being unfold in our earliest years. Are we born into a happy family? Do we have enough food to eat? Childhood stressors don't guarantee any kind of outcome, but they can set the tone for a lifetime.

Is it possible that the country's recent recession will lead to a lingering dip in the psychological health of the children who lived through it? "What all of us have gone through in the last few years—especially people who have lost jobs—is likely to have an effect on well-being," says Antonio Terracciano, an associate professor of geriatrics at the Florida State University College of Medicine. "How lasting will that effect be? We don't really know."

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A new study reported in Psychological Science finds those who grew up between the turn of the century and the Great Depression have had a more negative outlook throughout their lives than those born in the relatively prosperous postwar years. "Those born before or during the Great Depression have endured economic conditions that were significantly worse than all of those born after," notes Terracciano, a coauthor. Beginning with the cohort born around 1900, the researchers observe, baseline well-being steadily increased each decade until the 1940s, when it appears to have leveled off.

Earlier research has come to conflicting conclusions about happiness and aging, with analyses suggesting that well-being increases, decreases, or varies over time. But if an 80-year-old reports less happiness than a 60-year-old, it does not mean the older person's outlook has declined over her lifespan—more likely she just started off worse and never caught up. While the so-called Great Recession is hardly comparable to the 1930s, the study suggests that decade of birth may be a stronger predictor of well-being than more commonly studied factors, such as age.

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