While most sixteen year olds want to be eighteen, how many 45 year olds want to be 65?
Research has increasingly found happiness to be a function of many dimensions. One of them happens to be age; but it is more complicated than we might think. The progression in age does not make us more happy or unhappy in a linear way.
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 (overall happiness with one’s life) 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.
Let’s take a closer look:
Worry and stress decline from ages 20 to 30.
One explanation is that you are no longer in the teens trying to figure who, what and where you are supposed to be. Dr. Jeffrey Arndt coined this as the age of “Emerging Adulthood” where many young people load, launch and land by 30. It is an in-between age; but it is often colored by optimism.
Worry increases after 30 and is most elevated in mid-life and then declines after the 50’s.
This makes sense in that the middle years can promise all, give all, and demand all. The colloquial expression is ” mid-life stress.” Many people in the late 30’s to 50’s are working, building families, juggling children’s needs, couple needs, social ties and extended family needs.
Globally they often feel fulfilled and happy with life and family. On a daily basis, however, their stress can make them very unhappy to learn that the meeting at work conflicts with their daughter’s playoff game; that somehow they are not covering their bills; they have no personal time; everyone needs them; they are struggling to find couple time and they worry if they are enjoying life or looking old.
These are the times when it is worth recognizing ( when you can) that happiness is not incompatible with stress, strain or disappointment; that every day is another opportunity; that feeling better is about accepting all types of feelings as human and that sometimes capturing happiness is in the moment, the day or a little one’s laughter.
Worry decreases after the 50’s and despite increasing health issues and less mobility, as people age, they are happier and less stressed than younger people.
What Accounts for this U-bend of Happiness in Life?
Some of the theories that researchers, Stone, Schwartz and Broderick propose 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—the essence of mindfulness.
- Greater ability to regulate emotions than younger people. (Older adults have much more patience waiting in lines or waiting rooms – maybe they are not punching a clock – maybe they have figured out it is not worth getting stressed.)
- 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.
Maybe the take home message for any age is that you are not alone. There are many going up and down the same life trails. Drawing on the wisdom of those ahead on the trail – when in doubt, don’t rush, don’t worry what others think, enjoy the journey and don’t miss the view.