We Feel Better About the World as We Get Older

While optimism rises steadily with age, it begins to level off by about age 55. eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock

It may seem a little strange that we should feel so down on life in our youth. And yet, plenty of studies suggest depression, loneliness and uneasiness about the future is rampant among young people.

Well-meaning older people will say, "Don't worry. It gets better." They mean it — and they just might be right. A new study suggests growing old isn’t actually accompanied by a sense of creeping despair — but rather the opposite.

Hope flourishes with age. At least, to a point.

An optimism trajectory

For the study, researchers from the University of California Davis collected data from a large sample of Mexican Americans between the ages of 26 and 71. The team tracked each participant over seven years, and at various points, they conducted a "Life Orientation Test," a series of questions often used to determine a person’s level of optimism.

That standardized test asks people to assign values to various statements like, "If something can go wrong for me, it will" and "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best."

The University of California researchers supplemented the test with 54 questions relating to life events that may happen at certain ages. Those included positive developments like making a new friend, as well as negatives like getting laid off from work.

The findings, published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality, suggest an "optimism trajectory" — a kind of bell chart that sees people ballooning with hope by the time they reach their late mid-life.

The lifespan story of optimism

A woman facing the sun holding thumbs in the air.
Even negative life events doesn't dampen people's optimism over time. PKpix/Shutterstock

“There seems to be a popular perception that people become less optimistic with age, that their maturity leads them to be better calibrated to the ups and downs of life,” Ted Schwaba, one of the study authors, tells PsyPost. “But it seems, in this sample and a few others, that the lifespan story of optimism is actually one of gradual increase throughout adulthood.”

Positive life events, like graduating from college or getting a plumb job, only bolstered that feeling. And, even more fascinating, adverse events — like losing that job — didn’t derail a participant's overall sense of hope.

But the road to all that unbridled life enthusiasm isn’t exactly smooth. In fact, the optimism trajectory starts in the shaky 20s, when researchers noted participants scored lowest on the optimism test. From there, things do get better with an upward trajectory into our 30s, 40s and 50s.

Unfortunately, researchers also observed that optimism began to ebb as people reached a peak of 55. And this might be why the oldest person in your family is conspicuously silent when everyone else is trying to cheer you up.