Does Happiness Decline With Age?

Perhaps. But it doesn't have to, according to new research.

Posted Mar 05, 2020

Terrence McNally / Flickr
Source: Terrence McNally / Flickr

Are people happier at age 20 than they will be at age 70?

This was the focus of a new study published in the journal Psychological Science. The research suggests the likely answer is "yes," but with some important caveats.

"A pervasive concern among many people across the world is that growing older and reaching senior status means leaving their best days behind," state the researchers. "However, a fair bit of longitudinal and cross-sectional research has shown that levels of happiness remain relatively stable across the life span. Using representative cross-sections from 166 nations (more than 1.7 million respondents), [...] we found only very small differences in life satisfaction."

Life satisfaction was measured by asking participants to evaluate their current life on a scale from 0 (worst possible life) to 10 (best possible life). The researchers found that, on average, life satisfaction was rated approximately 5.8 at age 20 and 5.4 at age 70. In other words, life satisfaction showed marginal declines over time.

However, just because the data showed a gradual decline in life satisfaction over the life span doesn't mean that it always has to be the case. In fact, the researchers identified some important potential buffers against age-related declines in happiness.

For one, where you live matters. The researchers examined the trajectories of life satisfaction in 10 regions across the world and found that in the Anglo world (Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and the United States), life satisfaction actually tended to improve with age.

On the other hand, Latin Europe (a category in which they included France, Israel, Italy, Malta, Moldova, Portugal, and Spain) and Eastern Europe (composed of Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Montenegro, Northern Cyprus, Poland, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine) showed the steepest overall declines in happiness across the life span.

The researchers also explored whether marital and employment status influenced the trajectory of happiness. Interestingly, they found that both marriage and employment were associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, but the link was stronger for employment — especially around age 50.

The researchers conclude, "Overall, we found only very small differences in life satisfaction [...] across the life span. Marriage had very small associations with subjective well-being, whereas employment had larger effects that peaked around age 50."

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Jebb, A. T., Morrison, M., Tay, L., & Diener, E. (2020). Subjective Well-Being Around the World: Trends and Predictors Across the Life Span. Psychological Science.