Why Age Has Little Effect on Happiness
Happiness seems largely baked in by the time we grow up.
Posted Aug 02, 2016
Sophisticated research indicates that there is little change in happiness from when you're 20-years-old to 60. At the age of 60, happiness increases noticeably but there is a strong decline after age 75. Why is happiness this stable?
There is no single reason that satisfactorily explains why aging has minimal impact on contentment but there is a long list of plausible explanations.
The most obvious explanation is biology. Like other personality traits, happiness is highly heritable with perhaps a third of differences in self-reported contentment being explained by genetic differences (1). Whatever genes affect happiness probably have fairly constant effects throughout life and happy children generally mature into happy adults who remain happy throughout their lives.
Childhood experiences are also important. Children who are loved by their parents are more likely to grow up into confident adults who feel in control of their lives and are consequently good at coping with challenges and adversity not to mention making friends and establishing social networks (2). Conversely, children who grow up in conflict-ridden homes suffer more from anxiety and depression throughout their lives and are crippled by feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure.
Happy childhood homes are generally those that enjoy at least a minimum level of financial security. Conversely, growing up in the Limerick of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes is not going to turn a person into a barrel of laughs.
Living in poverty exposes people to many stressors that are either absent from, or have a reduced impact amongst, those who are well off. Examples range from crime victimization, and unemployment, to noise, air pollution, and chronic health problems.
So it is not surprising that affluence is a factor in happiness whether one compares across income groups, across countries, or over time.
One advantage of aging is accumulation of wealth, whether from a person's own savings and investments, or through inheritances. Wealthier individuals generally enjoy a richer social life thanks, in part, to more extensive social networks. So any tendency for happiness to decline with age might be neutralized by rising wealth and an improved standard of living.
Of course, living standards also tend to improve in a society due to economic growth and rising wages. Of course, American wages have been quite flat over recent decades. Moreover, elderly people suffer increasing insecurity as they see the costs of medicine, housing, and other necessities, rise faster than their income.
Time Period Effects
Researchers do not find much evidence that successive generations are progressively happier, as one might expect if happiness is affected by the rising general standard of living. Instead, recent adolescents were happier than four earlier generations of adolescents whereas adults over 30 were less happy than earlier cohorts of the same age.
So there is no simple trend for successive cohorts to get happier. This may reflect a well-known pattern across countries where affluent countries are generally happier than poorer ones but the benefits of wealth mostly peter out by the time a country achieves a Gross domestic Product of around $30,000 per person. Money can only do so much in increasing happiness and once most basic needs are satisfied it becomes relatively unimportant.
Why is there a brief surge in happiness in the 60's? It is tempting to think that by this age most people have overcome the major challenges of life, have faced career challenges, raised children, purchased homes, and are looking forward to retirement as a time of diminished responsibility.
Alternatively, people in their sixties achieve a level of wisdom that they had not achieved earlier. They recalibrate their ambitions and expectations of their lives in ways that are more in touch with reality. Perhaps, they develop a suite of social skills that help them to deal more effectively with others.
These are pleasing speculations. Unfortunately, they do not mesh with the evidence. It is extremely improbable that wisdom mysteriously achieved in the sixties would suddenly vanish in the seventies. Of course, older people experience the death of more friends and family, their health deteriorates, financial insecurities mount, and they are forced to confront their own mortality.
So the good news is that for most of our lives, whatever the problems of aging, it is not going to rob us of happiness.
1 Plomin, R. (1990). Nature and nurture. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
2 Barber, N. (2000). Why parents matter: Parental investment and child outcomes. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey.