When we think about being older, it tends to be negative: older people are slower, sicker and not as sharp mentally as they once were. But a new study paints a much different, far more positive, picture of life as a senior.

Overall, older persons are happier than younger people, Dilip Jeste, senior author on the paper, told TheDoctor. “Study participants reported they felt better about their lives, year upon year, decade after decade.”

Older people tended to be happier, more satisfied, less depressed and less anxious than younger ones.

The finding suggests that our society’s attitude about aging — and about seniors — needs to change. “We should look at older people as a great source of wisdom,” said Jeste, adopting the view of old age many Asian cultures share. Senior citizens can teach younger people the lessons they learned, sometimes the hard way, so that younger folks can avoid those mistakes.

The University of California in San Diego team looked at measures of the physical, cognitive and mental health of 1, 546 adults aged 21 to 100 years living in San Diego County. Study participants were selected at random. They were evenly divided by gender and stratified by age. More adults 75 years old and older were selected to participate, compared to those in other age groups.

As participants grew older, their psychological well-being improvedsignificantly, the researchers found. “Older persons tended to be happier, more satisfied, less depressed and less anxious versus younger ones,” said Jeste.

Many people believe that the 20s and 30s are the best years of life, Jeste said. Everyone knows adolescence is a period of great turmoil, and life becomes even more stressful as people finish college, make choices about life partners, start families and careers.

But as we get older, Jeste explained, mortality becomes concrete. When you are 55 or 65, you expect to have a few decades left, and yet at the same time you see others your age who are dying. So you grasp the finiteness of life. You start thinking about how you can conserve your energy and not waste time on things that don’t matter. Your greater life experience helps you gain more perspective, so you are better able to let go of the things that go wrong and cherish the things that went right.

When you are 20, you are easily devastated by life’s disappointments and failures. But when you are older, you are more likely to say, ‘That has happened in the past, I've been hurt more than a few times and I am not going to be crushed.’

This makes seniors an untapped resource. Said Jeste, “We need to understand mechanisms underlying better mental health among older people, in spite of their having more physical ailments. This understanding would help us to develop broad-based interventions to promote better mental health among all age groups, including those in younger adults.”

The study is published online in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.