* Alok Jha, science correspondent
* The Guardian,
* Tuesday January 29 2008
This article appeared in the Guardian on Tuesday January 29 2008 on p12 of the UK news section. It was last updated at 09:23 on January 29 2008.
People are most likely to become depressed in middle age, according to a worldwide study of happiness. The team of economists leading the work found that we are happiest towards the beginning and end of our lives, leaving us most miserable in middle years between 40 and 50.
The results, published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, showed that people’s levels of happiness followed a U-shaped curve, a pattern that was remarkably consistent in the vast majority of countries the researchers looked at, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe.
For both men and women in the UK, the probability of depression peaked at around the age of 44. In the US, men were most likely to be unhappiest at 50, while for women the age was 40.
Andrew Oswald, from the University of Warwick, and David Blanchflower, from Dartmouth College in the US, led a study of more than 2 million people from 80 countries to find if happiness was related to age.
They found that the signs of mid-life depression were consistent across many groups of people, irrespective of socio-economic status, whether they had children in the house, were divorced, or were facing changes in jobs or income.
“Some people suffer more than others but in our data the average effect is large,” said Oswald.
“What causes this apparently U-shaped curve, and its similar shape in different parts of the developed and even often developing world, is unknown.
“However, one possibility is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and in mid-life quell their infeasible aspirations. Another possibility is that cheerful people live systematically longer.”
A third possibility is that older people might compare their lives with their peers’. Seeing their friends die could mean people value their remaining years more highly.
Oswald added: “It looks from the data like something happens deep inside humans. For the average person in the modern world, the dip in mental health and happiness comes on slowly, not suddenly in a single year.
“Only in their 50s do most people emerge from the low period. But encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year-old. Perhaps realising that such feelings are completely normal in mid-life might even help individuals survive this phase better.”
A total of 72 countries were found to follow the U-shaped pattern of happiness. In the eight countries that did not seem to follow the pattern – mostly developing countries – Oswald said that the available data had been less robust, so discerning patterns had been difficult. He added that shorter lifespans might skew the results of a country.