We all age. It’s a truth we all currently have to face.
We must deal with the only non-replenishable asset we are all born with: time.
Seeing as all human beings have the same goal to be happy in life, it’s natural to wonder how our happiness may or may not change as each day passes.
Clearly this is a subjective question, as is with most questions related to happiness.
However, we all know about the term ‘midlife crisis’ – and recently I’ve been curious to know whether there was any truth to this.
Does happiness really dip dramatically after our 30’s and increase after our 50’s?
First, let’s see what some of the research shows.
The infamous ‘U’ curve
The social conversation almost unanimously agrees that the youth is an outgoing, party-loving and somewhat careless generation.
It makes sense: minimal responsibilities, basic needs are usually taken care of and education culture often cultivates social bonding at a heightened level.
So when 1.3 million Americans ages 13-96 were asked specifically ‘would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?’, where would you think the younger participants placed?
No surprise here – adolescents and young adults were the happiest amongst the group, and definitely happier than those over 30 years old.
Psychology researchers from San Diego State University reports to The Atlantic on this huge study and explained their findings that happiness is not a simple path upwards with age:
“Our findings, published on Thursday in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, were startling, revealing a pattern that doesn’t fit with conventional wisdom on age and happiness. Past research has found that people grow steadily happier as they age from adolescence to older adulthood, with happiness peaking when people reach their 60s and 70s; the moodiness of youth subsides, and maturity brings more contentment. But our analysis found that this was no longer true: In the last five years, the once-reliable correlation between age and happiness among adults has vanished. Adults 30 and over are less happy than they used to be, while, teens and young adults are happier; in fact, adults over 30 are no longer happier than their younger counterparts. It seems that mature adults’ happiness has waned, while young people’s happiness has flourished.”
Further research from Dr Ioana Ramia, from the University of New South Wales in Australia confirmed that happiness peaks in peoples’ mid-20’s and then dips as one get’s into their middle age and picks up at age 65.
This has been described in the scientific community as the ‘U-curve’ of happiness, and has been confirmed over and over again.
Another huge study looked at the wellbeing date of over 300,00 people from here in the UK, and showed the results commonly found in America were consistent overseas too:
“…data for more than 300,000 adults in the UK, collected over three years from 2012 to 2015, and found that happiness and life satisfaction plummeted among respondents aged 35 and over. However, the trend reverses once respondents reach 60, with people aged 65-79 tending to report the highest average levels of personal wellbeing, although levels slip again as respondents move further into old age.”
And if this study wasn’t large enough, another study of over 500,000 people further confirmed this pattern is not just a western-world problem, but found all over, as the study states:
“First, using data on 500,000 randomly sampled Americans and West Europeans, the paper designs a test that can control for cohort effects. Holding other factors constant, we show that a typical individual’s happiness reaches its minimum – on both sides of the Atlantic and for both males and females – in middle age. Second, evidence is provided for the existence of a similar U-shape through the life-course in East European, Latin American and Asian nations. Third, a U-shape in age is found in separate well-being regression equations in 72 developed and developing nations.”
The big question on everyone’s mind
It’s only natural that we take a step back from all these agreeing studies and scream ‘WHY?!’ (especially if we are approaching our late 30’s!).
There are many theories describing why this ‘U-curve’ of happiness appears consistently:
- The decline in happiness begins around the same time we begin employment: we have to face waking up and going to an uninspiring job at hours set by someone else, pursuing goals and enduring activities that don’t even come close to our goals and activities we engaged in in our teens.
- We dream big, and fall short: we develop goals and dreams in our youth that the vast majority of people end up giving up on or come to a conclusion they will not be able to achieve their life dream.
- Responsibilities: As we come out of our 20’s we change our focus from having enjoyable life experiences and spending time with others to making sure we have enough money to pay rent and put food on the table.
- Stress rises in our 20’s: All of the above increases stress, which we know has a negative effect on our physical and mental health, thereby reducing happiness.
There are many other theories too, which all revolve around the same general points, and no one knows for certain what the cause of the ‘U’ dip is.
What we can see, however, is that most of these causes boil down to one psychological characteristic.
Happiness has been often described by researchers as the sum of our reality divided by our expectations.
This is to say, we have certain expectations in our youth and when our reality does not match it in our 30’s and 40’s, we mentally and unconsciously compare the two and become unhappy because life has not ‘panned out the way I wanted’.
This also gives us a great hint towards our way out of the ‘U’.
Limitations in research
There’s an important consideration I encourage you to take on board whenever learning something new like this: take it all with a pinch of salt.
There’s a few reasons why.
With scientific research, first remember that they are not studying you. Even though they may be people like you, who live in the same country, have access to the same resources and earn the same range of incomes as you, they are still not you.
Why this is especially important within this context is because the vast majority of people in the world do not actively study happiness.
I am confident in assuming over 90% of the participants in the above studies are not students of wellbeing.
They had previously never heard of the ‘U-curve’, it’s causes or implications.
They do not know the value of practicing gratitude, prioritising relationships and exercising regularly. They will value money as the answer to many of their problems, and believe more work equals more happiness.
However, you do. Now that you know, you can adapt accordingly.
If you are young, realise the effect expectations can have on your happiness.
That’s not to say don’t have goals. Goals are wonderful and they help us have direction in life. Emotionally clinging on to a result, however, can be harmful.
I always am working towards goals, but I ensure that the goals have a meaningful and enjoyable process. If I achieve the goals I am happy, but I know that the happiness that comes from the achievement is temporary, so I am not emotionally dependent on it.
If you don’t achieve a goal in the timeframe you expected you would, that’s okay. There’s more time available. Focus on enjoying the process seeing as the majority of your entire life will be in the process of achieving goals, whilst achievement in and of itself only lasts one very short and fleeting moment.
If you are approaching the steep U, you now know there are things that could impact your happiness, and work to address them head on and with clarity.
Adjust your psychology so you are happier within yourself, with your family and with society as a whole.
You may want to set new goals in life or adjust the expectations you have of how you think life should be. Best option: reduce all expectations to a minimum and enjoy each day as they come, with specific and relaxed goals in place to at least ensure a focused but unattached direction in life.
Talk it through with family and friends, and journal. Both have been found to be helpful in reducing stress and coming to clearer solutions.
The other point I would like you to take into account with this research is that when people are asked about their life satisfaction in relation to their age, they are asked to review their life as a whole and make a judgment.
It’s not taking into account how you are actually feeling day to day, and I would argue this is what’s most important.
For example, you may be 50 and very happy day to day, but if someone asked you ‘how do you view your life as a whole at this stage, are you happy or unhappy?’ – you may then sit back and review your life expectations and think you have not matched them, thus concluding you are unhappy.
But no one sits back and thinks like this each and every day, our day-to-day and moment-to-moment experiences are much more important.
If you do have these ruminating thoughts every single day, then I would suggest to really take a short break and review your expectations of reality and your life, and think about making some important changes so you don’t have to continue suffering unnecessarily.
Happiness has been found to change quite predictably over time, with a noticeable dip in happiness in our 40’s, supporting the notion of a ‘midlife crisis’. However, the scientific studies do have important flaws that must be considered.
There are a number of simple steps you can take to enhance your chance of living a happy life, and it’s vital to remember that maintaining curiosity, taking each day step by step and being persistent in your path to joy will help you stray away from the gloomy path of billions.