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At What Age Will You Really Be Happiest?

New research into whether youngsters or seniors enjoy life most.

"Happiness often sneaks in through a door you didn't know you left open." — John Barrymore

We all want to be happy. "The pursuit of happiness" is one of the fundamental rights demanded in the Declaration of Independence, right along with life and liberty. Staying happy tends to be difficult as we grow older, however, and we find ourselves immersed in the complex daily problems we face. With all the hassles, job pressures, financial woes, and aches and pains that come with being human, happiness can tend to elude us.

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Even defining what we mean by happiness can be tricky. Depending on the moment, "happiness" can range from simple contentment to the kind of joy that only occurs at key moments in our lives. If we simply define happiness in terms of the amount of positive emotion we happen to be feeling at any given time, research suggests that happiness actually tends to increase over time, unless serious health problems develop. As we grow older, we (usually) become better at regulating our emotions and also acquire more memories of positive moments in our lives.

At what stage in life are people most likely to be happy?

Research looking at how happiness grows and changes across the lifespan presents conflicting conclusions: Cross-sectional studies comparing adults in different age groups suggests that happiness is highest in late adolescence or early adulthood. Longitudinal research suggests, on the other hand, that happiness is greatest in seniors. One study using longitudinal data from the "Midlife in the United Status" research project found that positive affect was relatively stable across adults in their mid-20s to late 30s; declined during the 40s; and then slowly rose to reach a peak from 60 to 69. All of which suggests that those proclaiming 60 to be the new 40 may be more true than many realize.

Granted, we all experience tragedy and heartbreak—and we develop more health problems as we age. Depending on how satisfied we are with our lives, though, there generally does appear to be an upswing of positive emotion over time. A new research study published in the journal Developmental Psychology looks at how happiness changes over time in two samples—high school seniors followed from age 18 to age 43; and university seniors followed from age 23 to age 37.

A team of researchers from the University of Alberta and Brandeis University used data from the Edmonton Transitions Study (ETS) as well as mail surveys for the adult participants. The Edmonton Transitions Study is a 25-year research project following Grade 12 students over 25 years to see how their lives change over time. It measures factors such as self-esteem, marital status, employment, physical health, and parents' level of education. The university graduates in the second sample were followed in six waves over 14 years to collect data equivalent to the ETS and to measure their general shift in happiness over time.

Overall, for the high schoolers, happiness rose sharply from age 18 to 25 and leveled off slightly around the age of 32. By the age of 35 or 36, happiness begins to dip slightly as participants approached age 43. For the university sample, happiness increased in a straight line from 23 to 37—a fairly robust effect that held up even after the researchers controlled for factors such as gender, parental education, academic status, and perceived self-esteem.

Basically, these results show that happiness generally increases in young adulthood, as people become more emotionally mature. Still, maturity brings new obligations that can have a profound impact on personal happiness. Marriage, new family responsibilities, career changes, and financial worries all contribute to one's overall level of happiness. Also, young adulthood tends to be the period in our lives when we are least likely to worry about health problems, which can increase later in life.

The researchers also reported some important trends: Women tended to be generally happier than men, though the overall difference was fairly small. Not surprisingly, self-esteem and happiness were strongly linked, for both samples, as were health and employment status. Marital status typically offered a happiness boost, something consistently reported by other studies as well.

Though their results are intriguing, the researchers acknowledge that their findings are probably not universal. People from different cultures and backgrounds may not share this same general upward trend in happiness from early adulthood to midlife. Still, the study of happiness is likely to rely more and more on these kind of longitudinal studies to show how happiness grows and changes across the lifespan.

It isn't just psychologists who have an interest in happiness research: Governments around the world are relying more on social indicator studies that use subjective concepts such as happiness to measure how effective social programs and policies are in improving the lives of citizens. This includes indicators such as the Better Life Index developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—designed to compare level of well-being for different countries—and the World Happiness Report published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Understanding happiness and well-being have become more important than ever. As lead researcher Nancy Galambos of the University of Alberta points out, "There’s a need for long-term, broad views of people's lives to understand the pathways to happiness and successful life outcomes.” Happy people are less likely to develop mental health problems and generally lead more satisfying lives, something we can all appreciate.

So how happy are you feeling today?