Golden Age Happiness: Life is a U-Bend

Why Happiness Peaks After Mid-life

By Amanda Frank, Hugo Mobility

No matter how crammed your cake is with candles you needn’t let another birthday bring you down. There are a few good reasons to look forward to aging, beyond its only alternative. Studies show the trajectory of life isn’t a downward slope from youth to old age. It’s actually a U-bend.

According to an article in The Economist, “U-bend of life: Why, beyond middle age, people get happier as they get older” we may lose some of our health and vigour but we can ditch the conventional belief that happiness gradually declines after mid-life. It’s really only just picking up again.

These are findings of new studies that represent a fundamental shift in conventional economics’ reliance on money as a proxy measure of happiness. Instead, they measure happiness directly based on four main factors – gender, personality, external circumstances beyond our control (like growing up during the Depression), and age.

Women are happier than men, but more susceptible to depression. 25% of women suffer from an episode of depression in their lifetime versus 10% of men. Personality-wise, neurotic types are more miserable than extroverts.

Education leads to higher degrees of happiness, but only if it brings a higher income. Money does makes people happy, though how much is debatable. Unhappiness associated with unemployment outweighs the satisfaction of being happily married.

People with kids in the house are less happy than those with no kids at home. While having kids is comforting, life-affirming, and makes us happier on the whole, it’s more likely to lead to an angry outburst or cause anxiety on a daily basis.

And, people become happier after middle age. 

Life starts out generally positive but then curtails sometime after youth, when the pursuit of goals such as career replaces the pursuit of happiness. Happiness continues to nosedive through to middle age. The apex of misery varies between the ages of 35 and 62. The median age is 46. Happiness hits an all-time low for people in their 40s and early 50s.

If we’re indeed talking about the stereotypical mid-life crisis, which this smacks of, then the misery isn’t for nothing, it’s a harbinger for important personal developments, as long as it doesn’t spiral untreated into a full blown depression. These internal changes, as opposed to external circumstances, are responsible for the happiness that follows middle-aged misery.

One study compared 30-somethings to 70-somethings. Both groups assume the younger group is happier but in reality the 70-year-olds have the stronger sense of well-being. Older people are better equipped to deal with stress and conflict.

Older people argue less and resolve issues better, control their emotions better, deal with adversity better, and don’t get angry as easily. Older people are more likely to take criticism from others in stride.

In one study, older and younger people heard recordings of negative comments supposedly directed at them. While neither groups’ subjects enjoyed listening to the comments, older people were less angry and less prone to pass judgment, more likely to shrug it off as, “you can’t please all the people all the time.”

Aging Boomers

The U-bend happiness theory is universal, not a trend or phenomenon of modern times, and not limited to one geographic area or culture. So why haven’t we heard of this before? When the theory first emerged in the 1990’s, no one paid much attention. Today though, there are 79-million aging Boomers – that’s 26% of the U.S. population listening to news and information on healthy aging. According to Pew Research, the oldest Baby Boomers turned 65 in 2011. By 2030, all Baby Boomers will have turned 65, at which point 18% of Americans will be 65 and older, compared with just 13% today.

As a person lodged squarely between my thirties, I’m also listening, and the take away benefit is a fresh and hopeful perspective on life as I have come to experience it. The gist of it is reminiscent of The Giving Tree by the late Shel Silverstein, published a few decades before the 1990s.

Probably less of a dry read than a scientific paper on the subject, The Giving Tree is a profound short story about the relationship between a boy and a tree, what the boy needs to be happy over the course of his life and what the tree can do to provide for that happiness.

The young boy is indeed happy, sitting in her shade and swinging on her branches. As he grows up into an adult boy, those childish pursuits are replaced with the need for tangible things, so to make him happy she depletes herself by giving him all of her branches to build his house.

When the middle-aged boy comes back to her full of sadness wanting to sail away from it all, she gives him her trunk to make a boat. Finally, when he comes back to the tree as an old man, she is only a stump, but all he needs is a place to sit. The old boy is happy, so the tree is happy.

What is the shape of an almost full circle? What is the shape of a smile? Is it just me or is there something very elegant, natural and comforting about this U-bend theory. There are many valuable lessons we can learn from our elders. If we could try to incorporate them before we are biologically programmed to learn them, we would all be better off.