Updated: Oct 6
Happiness might seem like a pretty straightforward thing. But if you’re an economics researcher, happiness is anything but straightforward. In fact, it’s fairly U-shaped.
Labor economists from the University of Warwick surveyed life satisfaction in countries around the world in the 1990’s. The results were clear: life satisfaction declined with age for the first few decades, hitting a rock bottom point in the 40s or 50s. From there on, life happiness steadily increased—sometimes even reaching a higher level than in the 20s—until it petered out due to disability or final illnesses crept in at the very end.
Other economists and researchers have found this same outcome in various studies throughout the years. Surveys were administered in different countries, including the General Social Survey (54,000 American participants), the European Social Survey (316,000 participants in over 30 countries), and the Understanding Society survey (416,000 participants in Great Britain).
After adjusting the data for variables such as income, marital status, employment and more, all research shows the same: a general U-curve for happiness bottoming out in the 40s, and then picking up sharply from the early 50s and onward, which makes youth and old age the happiest times of life. While there tend to be variations between countries and the exact age at which the U-curve bottoms out, the curve is there—which highlights a seeming commonality in the human condition.
Except it’s not just humans this U-curve affects. The same trend showed up in studies done on the state of mind of chimpanzees and orangutans over time. In a 2012 paper published by scholars and primatologists, the authors concluded that the wellbeing curve was not strictly limited to humans and might have more to do with biology than aspects of human society.
Whether for primates or humans, the crisis is clear: midlife provides a psychological low point. The causes aren’t explicitly clear, but plenty of theories abound. From a cultural standpoint, middle age is a stressful period of life, replete with life changes like divorce, the ailing health of parents or loved ones, stepping into the role of caregiver for elder loved ones, dealing with adolescent children, and often high-pressure career issues. People tend to confront unmet dreams and life expectations, as well. And sometimes, all of this is happening at once.
But ones the 50s hit, across the board, something changes. Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and her colleagues found in a 2011 study that happiness reaches peak levels in the seventh decade. While no firm reasons can be empirically verified, Carstensen and her colleagues believe that as people age and time horizons grow shorter, they invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments.
Social connection and happiness seem undoubtedly linked, especially if meaningful relationships lie at the core of the upswing of the happiness curve toward the later end of life. And the natural shift away from comparison, competition, and ambition—qualities that persist during our thirties and forties—leads inevitably toward connection and compassion.
Feeling dissatisfied or disenchanted with what one has achieved or what one has to look forward to might seem like happiness death sentences. But the emerging research about the cross-cultural happiness curve should be a reassurance for anyone struggling through the midlife doldrums. Coupled with mindfulness meditation, and a greater appreciation for the here and now, might be the best antidote for caregivers struggling through this period.
Just know there’s an end in sight. Many people 65 and older rate themselves as “very happy”, which shows that, contrary to popular belief, the aging process can be a good time. An aging process made even better when surrounded by friends and family.
So, for most of us, the best is yet to come.