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You Can Expect to Be Happy in Your 50s and 60s

All over the world, people have mid-life crises and then get happier.

Key points

  • Becoming happier after midlife is a pattern that shows up in human brain scans as well as research with primates.
  • One study found that people who focus on family have poorer functioning as they age than those who value friendship highly.
  • Staying engaged with cultural, social, and physical activities is the path to happiness as one ages.
National Gallery of Art/Public domain
"Manhood," The Voyage of Life, Thomas Cole, 1842
Source: National Gallery of Art/Public domain

For most of us, life gets tougher over a lifetime, especially around midlife—and this is nothing new.

"The Voyage of Life," an 1842 allegory by Thomas Cole, paints a terrifying image of "Manhood," with a hero praying in a small boat heading straight to a rocky waterfall, against a gloomy sky with a hint of setting sun.

Then your mood tends to veer up. If you were down in your forties, you can expect to be much happier in your fifties and sixties. Researchers call this the "U-shape" of happiness. It's not true for everyone, of course—but the U-shape seems to occur all over the world and even for orangutans.

"The happiness curve seems to be everywhere," writes Dartmouth labor economist Danny Blanchflower. reporting that people get happier after age 50 in 145 countries, including the continent of Africa.

Others say the big boost comes later, with a strong increase in happiness from 60 to 75.

The argument, which comes from huge data sets, suggests two ways to think about your own history. Don't blame yourself so much for the bad time—and be optimistic that things will improve.

Public domain
Old Age, The Voyage of Life, Thomas Cole, 1842
Source: Public domain

Brain scans and evidence from other primates suggest the pattern is somewhat hardwired. In a study of 508 chimpanzees and orangutans, zoo-keepers and other observers who knew the animals personally rated their well-being—which turned out to be U-shaped over time. Older people seem to have their own ways of keeping their spirits high—for example, shifting their gaze from sad faces to happy ones.

To boost this effect, look at happy photos, art, or your garden when you need a lift. Older people especially benefit from positive visual stimuli.

You can make yourself happier by adopting some habits that may seem counterintuitive: staying social and engaged with the world around you. Grandkids are the key to happiness in your golden years, right? Not necessarily. Don't neglect friends for the sake of family. In a study of more than 270,000 adults, people who focused on family had poorer functioning as they aged than those who valued friendship highly. In a British Index of Wellbeing in Later Life, based on data from nearly 15,000 people, categories including "civic participation," "having friends," "neighborliness of local area," and "extraversion" were all as important as being married and more important than having children or grandchildren in your life.

Being active in cultural and physical activities, in the same index, was more important than income, owning your home, and marriage or children. An 80-year study of 1,500 Californians concluded that people who are involved in a social network that includes advising and caring for others live longer. But it doesn't have to be grandkids.

You may find that you're more self-accepting once the time has passed for certain ambitions. "How pleasant is the day," noted William James, the American philosopher, “when we give up striving to be young—or slender."

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