Happiness is being young or old, but middle age is misery

Posted: March 22, 2008 by Doc in Happiness
Tags: ,

* 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.

Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness

Happiness Takes Effort

  1. i think middle age is so sad because you’re just coming to realize that all your best years have passed you by. old age is not as sad because you’ve become resigned to it. *sigh*

    i know you said you’re busy, but i had to try inviting you for this week’s Blog Rounds – because I’m going to be hosting it. 🙂 i would love to hear your take on the topic… and it’s not a toxic one. it’s easy to write, but it’s also quite personal.

    the topic for this week is “At a Crossroads.” You can read more about it here.

    I hope you can join us! If you have an old related post you might like to share, let me know. you don’t have to write a new one. 🙂

  2. annymorris says:

    I have found something and I want to hare it with you. Pretty fun about middle age.
    5. Middle age is when you go to the doctor, and you realize you now have to pay someone to look at you naked.

    4. The good news about middle age is that the glass is still half-full. Of course, the bad news is that it won’t be long before your teeth are floating in it.

    3. You know you are getting old when you go for a mammogram, and you realize it is the only time someone will ask you to appear topless in film.

    2. Middle age brings the wisdom that life throws you curves… and that you’re now sitting on your biggest ones.

    And the number one reason why being middle aged could be a downer…

    1. It’s very hard to “get jiggy with it” when you’re middle aged. Jiggly, yes. Jiggy, no!!!

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