Cheer Up! It Gets Worse, Then Better (Depending On Your Age)


This week I am starting a series of articles on that magical quality we call happiness. I’ve been studying the scientific literature on happiness for a while now, and it’s not all just common sense. There is some gold in the ore. In fact, much of what science has discovered about happiness goes against what we commonly believe. For instance, it turns out that money does buy happiness, but only if you have almost no money. Once you acquire the basics, food, shelter, a car, more money has relatively little impact on happiness. Or take having children. Everyone assumes that having children brings joy. But the research doesn’t support this very strongly. Marriages suffer when children enter the scene, and parenting is rated relatively low in the grand scheme of activities. In fact, what the science of happiness suggests is that we are remarkably bad at predicting what will make us happy. Hence the high rates of job change, house selling and rebuying, and of course, divorce.

But I will write more on these matters later. For today I want to talk about an interesting new study that looks at happiness over the course of a lifetime. This latest study, performed by economists David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of Warwick, looks at how happiness changes as people age. Using data from about 45,000 Americans, and 400,000 Europeans, they looked at the average ratings of happiness by age.

What they discovered is very interesting. Basically happiness is high when people are young adults, early in their 20s. This is not surprising, as the early 20s are that magical point where one is freed from parental constraints, but doesn’t have a lot of other new constraints. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. Happiness sinks gradually over the next 20 something years, and reaches in nadir on average around age 45. Depressing news for young people, eh?

But the news gets better. After age 45, happiness increases steadily on into old age. Wow! This isn’t what we’d expect at all. Elderly people happier than people in their 30s!

The European and American data were fairly similar, except that the Europeans reached their lowest happiness levels a few years earlier than the Americans.

So happiness is a U-shaped curve. Why? The research doesn’t answer the question. But they did rule out one explanation, the generational one. People born earlier still show the U-shaped happiness pattern.

The authors also looked at the influence of income on happiness. This data is fascinating! They found that the wealthier you are the happier you are on average, which is not surprising. But the decline is happiness from young adulthood to middle age is the equivalent to a 50% reduction in income, and the increase in happiness from age 45 to old age is equivalent to a doubling of income!

Finally, the authors found over the last hundred years, Americans have gotten much less happy. The difference in happiness between the generations born in the 1960s and the 1920s is the same as a tenfold change in income. So someone born in 1962 would need 10 times the income to be equally as happy as their grandfather who was born in 1922. This is a disturbing finding. Why are we so unhappy? I have some ideas, but I will come back to them in a future article.

One clue may exist in the differences in the European data. The generations that were born in Europe since 1950 have gotten steadily happier. Shorter work weeks, longer vacations, more social welfare and security, all may be part of the mystery, especially when compared to the opposite trends in the United States.

So cheer up. Adulthood brings with it a steady decline in happiness, but just when it’s looking pretty grim, things improve. And even though we all are going to get old and infirm, we can at least look forward to getting steadily happier.

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

2 thoughts on “Cheer Up! It Gets Worse, Then Better (Depending On Your Age)

  1. Hi Psychology Man,

    Thank you for this fascinating research and it’s good to know that being in my mid 40s means I’m on the upswing for the happiness curve!

    I do want to speak on behalf of this research finding: ” Everyone assumes that having children brings joy. But the research doesn’t support this very strongly. ” While it is incredibly stressful raising kids (especially when you’re a single, working mom), there’s nothing more rewarding than having children. The hugs, glimmer in their eyes, and seeing your kids do well and be kind based on how you’re raising them, makes all the stress worthwhile, this makes me personally happier. It’s a pity that most people don’t know how to savor these special times and also teach their kids to be more appreciative and caring. If they did, I think they’d respond differently to how they feel about having kids.

    I look forward to reading your next entry. This is by far the best blog I read!

    Thank you!!

  2. Thanks for the summary of the recent articles. I’m looking forward to your analysis of the why we are so unhappy. I agree with the prior poster: having children is the best life change I’ve made. Sure they are work (isn’t everything that is truly good?), but they give parents tremendous joy and love, a chance to see the world through optimistic, inquiring eyes, and a chance to find the compassion within us to share with them. In short, some children can make adults far more compassionate, less self-centered,and very happy.

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