If someone asked you right now to rate how happy or satisfied with your life, what would your answer be? Thinking back on your life, and perhaps even projecting into the future, would you answer the question in a different way?
Reflecting even further, what factors do you think affect your satisfaction? Are they positive factors such as your involvement in work, your relationship with your intimate partner, or the way you relate to your children? How about the negative factors such as dealing with COVID-19? How do these strains affect your happiness?
Researchers who study happiness for a living have debated for a number of years now about whether there are discernible patterns by age in this key aspect of psychological well-being. One approach that continues to arouse public interest suggests that the age-happiness relationship follows a U-shaped pattern with the dip coinciding with the supposed mid-life crisis. If you’re in your 40s, then, your level of satisfaction with your life should be at a nadir.
However, this U-shaped approach continues to be criticized as lacking substantiation, in part because the “low point” involves a minuscule difference in the happiness rating scale that becomes significant only because the number of people studied is so large. Would you even notice in your own life that your satisfaction rating is a 7.25 out of 10 vs. a 7.15?
Other methodological problems with this research include the fact that these U-shaped studies don’t follow the same people over time but compare people of different ages. From this vantage point, according to Galambos et al., (2020), midlife may even be considered the happiest period of life, not the most miserable.
You may regard this debate as being relatively remote from your own life, figuring that it reflects the relatively obscure concerns of academic researchers. However, consider what you encounter as a consumer of knowledge when it comes to understanding your own life. Perhaps you are feeling particularly down at the moment. If what you’re reading in the media attributes your own emotional state to your age and age alone, then you could come to the conclusion that all you have to do is wait and grow older, and things will automatically improve. Instead, if you realize that age can’t “cause” your happiness, then you might look productively for other ways to improve your sense of contentment with life.
According to a new study by Felix Bitmann (2020) of the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories, there is indeed a practical reason to gain insight into the age-happiness relationship. With the “global increase in life expectancy,” it is worthwhile to understand how to maximize people’s feelings of well-being across adulthood and into the later years.
Once you decide that this research has value, then, the next question becomes what to do about honing in on age as a contributor to life satisfaction or happiness independently of the life conditions that can affect how positively people view their lives at the moment. Do you take into account such germane factors as health, gender, education, or ethnic/cultural background or do you look only at age?
The author poses the problem in the following way: “Since (chronological) age is the time span between the date of birth and present, and time passes equally for all beings (on planet earth), there is no good justification to include any sociodemographic control variables when the causal relationship between age and life satisfaction is to be studied… Introducing these variables can rather lead to a biased estimate” (p. 4). In other words, you may believe that you’d be happier if you had more money—a questionable belief, but one that you nevertheless hold. Having more money might increase satisfaction but it wouldn’t cause your age.
If you’re getting a sense that there’s a "correlation does not equal causation" problem here, then you’re onto the idea behind these statements. Indeed, Bittman cites the rather interesting correlation, often discussed in the statistical literature, between the number of storks and birth rates in a given country. To refute the so-called “Theory of the Stork,” statisticians note that the apparent relationship is not due to the fact that storks deliver babies (and fewer storks mean a lower birth rate) but instead to the effect of a country’s size in terms of land area, which “causes” both.
If sociodemographic factors don’t “cause” age but could contribute to life satisfaction, Bittman argues, researchers would be better off thinking of these influences such as wealth and education as factors related to age which, in turn, lead to variations in life satisfaction. According to this view, whether you’re happy or not isn’t a function of age but is a function of such other factors (that may be related to age) that influence your overall sense of well-being.
You can’t change your age, then, but you could potentially change those demographic factors. As you get older, another influence on your happiness can also become important, and that’s your health. If your health declines as you age, then your level of satisfaction can become a function of such problems as back pain or heart disease, problems that may be fixable or at least modifiable.
Using data from 81 countries and more than 170,000 participants from two international studies conducted between 2010 and 2019, Bittman examined the relationship between age and a 1-10 point measure of satisfaction: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?”
Rather than using sociodemographic factors as “controls,” according to the logic of wanting to study age itself, Bittman took the approach of separating the data according to country grouping based on the clusters of the age-satisfaction relationship. This statistical procedure led Bittman to decide that the best fit to the data occurred when he clustered the countries according to whether the data supported a linear relationship (straight decline with age), a U-shaped pattern (albeit a small “u”), or an overall decline that stabilized at about age 70 and then poked up slightly after that.
To explain these clusters, the German author next moved onto analyzing such key factors as employment rate, education, income inequality, gender inequality, and life expectancy at birth. Bittman also included percent of Internet users as one of these factors. The cluster with the linear decrease included less developed countries, suggesting the importance of access to healthcare and retirement benefits. Those with the slight U-shape included countries with more supportive services for people in later life.
What seemed most puzzling to Bittman was that third cluster, with the tiny uptick in later life after a continuous decline. The United States fell into this pattern. Without a clear theoretical reason for this pattern to emerge independently of the other two, Bittman seemed stumped. He stated that his approach did give some “order to chaos,” in looking at all of the findings, but it just wasn’t enough.
Now look back on the original question about which is the happiest period of life. The answer, based on Bittman’s findings, seems to be “it depends.” You might not like this answer, because it’s not what you were looking for, but on the other hand, you can be heartened by the fact that your life’s happiness can reflect more than that one aspect of yourself you can’t control; namely, your date of birth. You can, instead, look for other factors that can enhance the quality of your life and ultimately your level of satisfaction.
To sum up, the perennial question of what makes people happy seems not to be “age.” Find those other ways to tackle the life circumstances that are within your control, bringing you the potential for fulfillment no matter what your age.
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Bittmann, F. (2020). Beyond the u-shape: Mapping the functional form between age and life satisfaction for 81 countries utilizing a cluster procedure. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being. doi: 10.1007/s10902-020-00316-7