Is our happiness in life largely dictated by our age? Yes, suggests this 2010 article in the Economist, summarizing some of the latest research in the field of, well, happiness research. I’ve been thinking about the article during a long Thanksgiving weekend of taking care of my mother as she recovers from breaking her arm – a much more difficult task than for someone younger. Not particularly happy times, for her.
What the data show is that our happiness in life tends to follow a “U-bend.” We are (in the aggregate) happiest in youth, then less so as we proceed into adulthood, bottoming out around our late 40s.
And then, it would appear, somehow things turn around and our happiness increases as we proceed into old age – to levels that seem shockingly high.
Of course, individual mileage varies. It’s natural to resist this sort of generalization as determinism, and to assert the importance of the realities of our individual lives in setting the level of our happiness. While that’s clearly true, it’s also true that even if you or I have had a different experience, the larger trend remains. And it’s impressive is that these effects appear to hold constant across different cultures, different income levels, etc.
The first part of the U-bend is perhaps not that surprising. It’s easy to see how progress through life from a carefree state to one full of cares can be reflected in declining happiness. Of course, this can also correlate with the deeper joys that come with a growing sense of meaning – which helps to remind us that to be happy is not the same as to be good. Most of us would probably agree that we should strive foremost to be good, but if we can be happy too, we’ll take it.
The more surprising finding is the second half of that U-bend, as our movement into old age is accompanied by increasing happiness. We may conclude that it’s because we begin laying down cares, as children reach adulthood and move on, or because we’re moving from employment into retirement. But it’s important to note that these perspectives are very much those of the affluent west; in much of the world, familial connection and employment do not change in the same ways they do here. And it is fascinating to see how the U-bend remains a reality across many societies.
It’s a wide-ranging article and well worth a read. This research can give us some perspective on our own lives. Where are you on the U-bend? For those who feel they may be on the downward slope, there’s encouragement to hang in there, as older – eventually – means better.