age and happiness

Imagine a bunch of 35 year olds and a bunch of 85 year olds.  Which is happier? The 35-year-olds, right? That’s what each group answers.  But ask each to assess its own well-being and the older people come out ahead. This fact surprises (even me! even though I’ve written about it a lot!) because we’re so deeply conditioned to envision life after youth as decline.  Yet it turns out that “Although as people move towards old age they lose things they treasure—vitality, mental sharpness and looks—they also gain what people spend their lives pursuing: happiness.”

That’s a quote from a recent article in the Economist, which describes the growing branch of economics dedicated to answering “the perennial question: what makes people happy?” Findings show that people are least content in their 40s and early 50s and happiest in late life. This is true around from Australia to Zimbabwe, and reflects emotional as well as circumstantial well-being. In other words the universal life trajectory is not a downward slope but a “U-bend.” That's in the Britspeak of the Economist article, which is subtitled, “Why, beyond middle age, people get happier as they get older.” In the American press, it's generally referred to as the “U-shaped happiness pattern.”

Four main factors (gender, personality, external circumstances and age) seem to contribute to happiness, but not as categorically as you might think. The effect of age is significant, “about half as much, from the nadir of middle age to the elderly peak, as that of unemployment.” Control for cash, employment status and children, and the U-bend persists. How come? One theory is that as death grows closer we get better at living in the moment. Or better at being grateful for what we have. Or simply less ambitious. (The article quotes philosopher William James’s observation, “How pleasant is the day when we give up striving to be young—or slender.”) Whichever is the case, or which combination, it’s apparent that the source is internal, and inherent to the aging process itself.