The happiness curve

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WASHINGTON, DC: We all want to be happy, don’t we? Well, if you’re dissatisfied, frustrated or downright miserable, cheer up. There’s apparently a cure for you. Even better, it will materialize automatically. Just sit and wait; the very anticipation of its arrival might improve your spirits. The remedy: getting older.

It’s counterintuitive. In our mind’s eye, old age is to be endured as much as enjoyed. People fear declining health, growing dependence and increasing social isolation. But on average, they also count themselves happier. Consult public opinion surveys, and that’s what you find. Almost 40 percent of Americans 65 and older rated themselves “very happy” compared with only 33 percent of those 35 to 49, report surveys by NORC at the University of Chicago.

This is not just an American quirk. An expanding scholarly research finds similar patterns in many advanced countries. Happiness seems to have a shape — a “U-curve.” Life satisfaction falls “for the first couple of decades of adulthood,” hits bottom in the late 40s or early 50s “and then, until the very last years, [increases]with age,” as Jonathan Rauch writes in the current issue of The Atlantic.

How widespread is the U-curve? Economists David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick examined survey responses about personal well-being in 80 countries and identified the U-curve in 55, with people’s average happiness low point occurring at age 46. Carol Graham and Milena Nikolova of the Brookings Institution studied polls for 149 countries and found the U-curve in 80, with an average low point at age 50.


“I view this as a first-order discovery about human beings that will outlive us by hundreds of years,” Oswald told Rauch. Although that’s over-the-top, these researchers are clearly on to something. What they’ve confirmed is what common sense suggests: There are life-cycle rhythms to contentment and happiness. What’s (perhaps) surprising is that, for many, the best years are the later ones.

Rauch, a longtime friend, has rescued the subject from the obscurity of scholarly journals. He began exploring the research as a result of his own experience. In his 40s — he’s now 54 — he felt increasingly oppressed by failure, even though, outwardly, his life was a stunning success. Personally, he was healthy and in a rewarding relationship. Professionally, he was a well-regarded writer who’d authored several books and won one of journalism’s top prizes. Still, he felt himself a loser.

“Morning after morning (mornings were the worst), I would wake up feeling disappointed, my head buzzing with obsessive thoughts about my failures,” he writes. Worse, he hid the truth. “My dissatisfaction was whiny and irrational, as I well knew, so I kept it to myself.”

And then, entering his 50s, the gloom began to lift, despite some objectively wrenching setbacks. Both parents died; a magazine “restructuring” claimed his main job. Still, he didn’t feel so relentlessly assailed. He’d begun climbing from the U-curve’s trough.

Why is happiness U-shaped? Here’s my thumbnail explanation.

The young idealize the future. Their hopes and optimism are high. As Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen tells Rauch: “Young people are miserable at regulating their emotions.” By the time they approach middle age — say, their late 30s — many experience some disillusion, even if they’ve done well. These are life’s most crowded years: Careers and children impose ever-greater responsibilities. What needs to be done expands; the available time doesn’t. There’s a sense of losing control.

In their late 40s or early 50s, people see trend lines reversing. Responsibilities and obligations diminish. Children leave. Careers peak. Ambition and youthful dreams recede. People increasingly accept their limits over work and family. They become more realistic — or resigned. The opportunities for failure shrink. The mismatch between expectation and experience narrows. People mellow. There is often a reappraisal of life’s purpose and meaning.

Of course, this is too simple.

We all know that happiness is a hydra-headed genie. It has a multitude of sources. Personality is often decisive. Some people are compulsively upbeat; others, the opposite. Generational differences matter. A study by sociologist Y. Claire Yang of the University of North Carolina found that baby boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) are less happy than other generations — possibly because their youthful expectations were so extravagant. Economic and social conditions shift sentiment; the financial crisis temporarily depressed happiness, reports NORC.

Still, the life cycle also counts. The late writer Donald Richie once said: “Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, (BEG ITAL)Is this all?(END ITAL) And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, (BEG ITAL)Actually, this is pretty good(END ITAL).” Rauch regrets he didn’t know this earlier. It would have made a hard journey easier.

© 2014, THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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