Daniel Freeman, Ph.D. and Jason Freeman

Know Your Mind

How Do Our Levels of Happiness Change as We Age?

Is the U curve all it seems?

Posted Jul 07, 2015

 The Who 1308720073
The Who, Hamburg 1972
Source: Heinrich Klaffs, Flickr: The Who 1308720073

“I hope I die before I get old,” wrote Pete Townsend of The Who in 1965, neatly encapsulating our culture’s veneration of youth — and disdain for those unfortunate souls who no longer possess it.

The 20-year-old Townsend was, of course, to be disappointed: In May he turned 70. But over the decades he may have revised his views on the grimness of growing old. Because the aging process isn’t necessarily a steady descent into misery; on the contrary, the evidence suggests that happiness is likely to increase as we head towards old age.

This isn’t to say that the idea of the mid-life crisis has had its day. In general, people seem to begin their lives with a high degree of contentment. From the age of around 18, we become gradually less happy, reaching a nadir in our 40s. One estimate suggests that over the 30 years from teen to middle age, life satisfaction scores dip by an average of around 5-10%.

However, the happiness curve is U-shaped. As we head into our 50s, levels of contentment take off again. By the time we’re in our 60s, it’s likely that we’ll never have been happier. (The upward trend doesn’t continue indefinitely, though: unsurprisingly, levels of satisfaction usually dip in the last couple of years of life.)

We are, of course, talking averages here — broad statistical trends, typically based upon responses to one question (such as “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”). An individual’s personal experiences may be quite different.

Nevertheless, it’s a pattern that’s been detected in many large-scale studies. The U-shaped curve emerges very clearly, for example, from data on half a million Americans and Europeans.

The pattern has been found too in longitudinal studies of the general population: that is, research that follows the same group of people over a number of years. This kind of study is expensive and challenging and, consequently, less common. But it’s also the only way to trace how a specific individual’s happiness changes with age.

The U-shaped curve remains when you control for factors such as birth cohort, physical health, income, number of children, marital status, and education. It’s seen in both sexes, though men tend to be happier than women (albeit women smile more). And, would you believe, researchers have even claimed to have detected it in great apes.

A study of 500 chimpanzees and orangutans rated for happiness by their zoo keepers indicated a primate mid-life crisis at around the age of 30 — a finding that led to speculation that some (as yet unidentified) age-related biological influence is at work.

However, though the U-shaped curve is pervasive it’s most certainly not universal. For one thing, it seems to be far more prevalent in high-income nations. In countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (Albania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Russia, for example), well-being in childhood is markedly lower than in the west, and it then steadily declines with age. Life satisfaction in Latin America and the Caribbean is reasonably high in childhood (though lower than in the west), but again deteriorates from there. In sub-Saharan Africa countries such as Angola, Cameroon, and Ethiopia, life satisfaction remains low throughout the lifespan.

Even in the case of wealthy nations, some academics have argued that the U-shaped curve is a statistical illusion. (Economists, incidentally, figure prominently in the debate over the U-shaped curve.) Perhaps, for example, unhappier people simply die younger.

There’s certainly evidence of a correlation between well-being and mortality. A new UK study that followed more than 9,000 people in their 60s for eight years found a death rate of 29% for those in the bottom quarter for happiness. For the most contented 25%, on the other hand, the rate was just 9%.

Some of that stark difference can be attributed to physical health. The UK study found that older people with illnesses such as coronary heart disease, arthritis, and chronic lung disease were likely to have lower levels of well-being. Moreover, it may be that happiness helps prevent people from falling ill. Yet even after controlling for initial physical health, wealth, education, and depression, happiness was still associated with a 30% reduction in the risk of death.

The link between happiness and mortality may be skewing the statistics to a degree, but the overall death rate isn’t nearly high enough to account entirely for the U-shaped curve. Perhaps more subtle biases are at work. Perhaps researchers haven’t always fully grasped the complexity lurking in the large sample data. What happens for example when you factor in the possibility that the people getting happier in the studies are essentially the same individuals who began life with high levels of contentment? After all, happy people are more likely to experience positive life events (career success, for instance, or great relationships), which in turn bring even greater happiness.

When you correct for this effect, say economists Paul Frijters and Tony Beatton, the U-shaped curve disappears. What we see instead is an overall gradual decline in happiness with age. Not everyone, of course, stays in a longitudinal survey; inevitably, a percentage of participants drop out. When Frijters and Beatton controlled for this factor they found that the happiness shape changes again. This time the data formed a wave: Happiness remained fairly steady up to around age 55, at which point it increased, before falling sharply at about age 75.

The U-shaped curve theory has its dissenters. Yet evidence for its existence in the prosperous west keeps on coming, most recently in a longitudinal study of the general population in Britain, Australia, and Germany that tracked individual changes in well-being. So if it’s accurate, what are the reasons?

The short answer is that no one knows, not least because the surveys that generate the data are less well suited to elicit explanations. This isn’t to say that theories haven’t been suggested. Two are particularly popular in the scientific literature. The first is economic: Essentially, it all boils down to the effect of work on our well-being. The downward curve of contentment begins as we enter employment in early adulthood and accelerates as work takes up more and more of our time in mid-life. But we reap the rewards as we enter our 50s — established in a career, financially secure, and with the kids having finally flown the nest, we now have time to enjoy the fruits of our frenetic mid-life labour.

That’s the idea, at least.

The other dominant theory is psychological. We start off in life with high hopes, which we gradually realise are unlikely to be fulfilled. “Dashed hopes and good intentions. Good, better, best, bested,” as Edward Albee put it in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Middle age brings a new sense of realism; a determination to enjoy life as it is; and thus an increase in happiness.

Whatever the explanation, the U-shaped curve teaches us that a mid-life slump is both normal and temporary. Irish comedian Dylan Moran boils life down to just four stages: “Child, failure, old and dead.” But then he’s 43. Ten years later, chances are life may seem a much happier affair.

This blog post first appeared in The Guardian. Follow @ProfDFreeman and @JasonFreeman100 on Twitter.