If someone asked you if are happier today than you were 10 years ago – what would you say? Your answer is likely to vary depending on your age.
Research has increasingly found happiness to be a function of many dimensions. One of them happens to be age. A surprising finding in terms of age and happiness is that the progression of age does not lead to an increase in happiness or unhappiness in a linear fashion.
Reported in The Economist, this finding is a result of the work of economists who internationally have begun to measure well being in terms of happiness –as distinct from financial indicators.
Gathering data through America’s General Social Survey, Eurobarometer and Gallup they asked two types of questions to measure happiness. One dealt with life as a whole or global well being, including aspirations and achievements (Global WB): “Thinking about your life as a whole, how do you feel?” The other measured affective or emotional well being, like stress and contentment (Hedonic WB): “Yesterday did you feel happy/contented/angry/anxious?”
Measuring different aspects of well-being, such questions do not always elicit the same response. For example, someone who has children might be more likely to report being happy with their life as a whole, but also more likely to be stressed yesterday.
The U-Bend of Happiness
The surprising finding is that people increase in happiness until around 30 then happiness heads downward into midlife and then back up again to higher levels after the 50’s. This U-bend of happiness seems to hold true even across cultural differences. People are the least happy in their 40’s and 50’s with the global low point being 46 years. Past middle age there seems to be growing happiness into the later years that occurs regardless of money, employment status or children.
These findings are further delineated by research psychologists Arthur Stone, Joseph Schwartz and Joan Broderick, whose study of the age distribution of psychological well-being in the U.S. involved a telephone survey of 340,847 people. Their findings confirmed the U-bend for global well being and more clearly identified the state of negative feelings across the life span.
They found that while there are some differences in the experience of negative feelings over time, overall they seem to follow the U-bend.
- Worry and stress decline from ages 20 to 30.
- Worry increases after 30 and is most elevated in mid-life and then declines.
- Sadness stays relatively the same across the life span.
What Accounts for the U-bend of Happiness in Life?
Why are older people, despite increasing health issues and less mobility, on the average happier and less stress than younger people?
Some of the theories suggested include:
- Increased “wisdom” or psychological intelligence in handling life.
- Less aspirations and expectations of self.
- Sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.
- Greater appreciation for life.
- Living in the moment with less worry about the future.
- Greater ability to regulate emotions than younger people (Older adults will wait in a waiting room for longer amounts of time without losing it).
- Less worry about pleasing everyone all the time.
- Positive “effect” wherein older people recall fewer negative memories than younger adults.
- Overall tendency to view situations more positively.
The U-bend of Happiness as a 10K Race
In some ways we might consider that older age and its increased sense of happiness is not different than other points on the life span but rather a result of them.
My association is to a 10k Race. If you were to observe or participate in such a race you notice that all the runners at the starting line are smiling with excitement. After the big hill on the second mile which many take on with vigor and sometimes too much speed, the middle miles seem endless.
Few are smiling as they push for a winning pace, work around leg cramps or other runners and often wonder why they decided to do this. Most catch some renewed energy as they turn to see the last ½ mile stretch to the finish and whether winded, hurting or dehydrated, everyone who passes through that finish line is soon smiling again – happy in a way that only running the course could have made possible.
Findings like the U-bend of Happiness can be used in different ways. They can confirm, invite reflection, trigger protest or even motivate. On hearing these findings, one 67 year old man told me that the lowest point in his life was at age 38. It was the point that forced him to change the way he lived. Now he considers it one of the most important points in his life.
What do these findings stir in you?