What’s the unhappiest age? According to a recent study, it’s our late 40s. Our happiness, it seems, tends to decrease towards this midlife nadir, before steadily increasing through our 50s and 60s.
In the study, Dr David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, US, compared 109 data files of happiness statistics from around the world, plotting the relationships between wellbeing and age for hundreds of thousands of people.
He found the ‘happiness curve’ in data from 132 countries, controlling for factors that affect wellbeing, such as education, marital status and employment status. For developing countries, happiness was lowest at 48.2 years old; in developed countries it was 47.2.
“No ifs, no buts, wellbeing is U-shaped in age,” writes Blanchflower. “I found it in Europe, Asia, North and South America, in Australasia and Africa … There were very few countries I did not find it for, and that happened mostly where there were small samples or I had no data.”
Previous studies have found this happiness curve, too. Some of the best evidence comes from longitudinal studies, which track the same group of people over a number of years. For example, a 2015 study led by health economist Dr Terence Cheng, looked at individual changes in wellbeing in longitudinal data from Britain, Australia and Germany, finding “powerful support for a U-shape”.
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However, some experts question whether the curve is a true phenomenon, or a result of the data analysis. One possibility, says Dr Dean Burnett – author of The Happy Brain and honorary research associate at Cardiff University’s School of Psychology – is that the curve at least partly results from unhappier people dying younger, which would skew the data towards higher happiness for the older ages.
That said, there are reasons why happiness might follow this trajectory when averaged over a population.
“Around the late 40s and early 50s is a time when many people have less autonomy and less financial security,” he says. “When you’re younger, you’re not tied down with responsibilities, and there are more possibilities. In midlife, people might have mortgages to pay and adolescent children to look after.
“Your body might be starting to get aches and pains, and there’s less novelty in life. All of the things you were looking forward to when you were younger have either happened, or are looking less likely to happen.”
So why might happiness increase in later life?
“When you’re older, autonomy usually increases,” says Burnett. “Your children are grown up, you have less responsibility, you might be retired – you have more control over your life again. You’ve also had some time to make peace with any challenges that you began to encounter in your 40s and 50s.”
Another benefit of being older, says Burnett, is that you’ve built up life experience, and that can help you to deal better with any negative life events. “You also become more grateful for the things that you do have,” he adds. “You come to terms with the things you aren’t going to get, and can concentrate on other things, such as friendships or hobbies.”
The studies that have found the happiness curve include some broad definitions of happiness. In the Blanchflower analysis, for example, the UK data came from the Annual Population Survey, which asks participants to rate, on a scale of 0 to 10: “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” and “How happy did you feel yesterday?”.
Individual differences will vary greatly from the statistical average, and everyone will have their own personal happiness trajectory. So to what extent can we affect our own happiness? “We have a lot more control than we realise,” says Burnett.
“We have the autonomy to do things and make decisions that’ll improve our wellbeing. But we also don’t realise how much of our happiness is influenced by others.” He says that a lot of the things that we think will make us happy – like marriage or a particular job – come from our culture, not from any real need.
Burnett recommends being aware of this when setting goals for the future. “How many of these are things that you actually want, and how many are things that you feel you should want?” he says.
Ultimately, it seems that people can be unhappy at any age. But they can be happy at any age, too. “There are plenty of people in their late 40s who are having the time of their life,” says Burnett.