Happiness is U-shaped Which Explains Why Middle Age is Misery

People’s happiness over their lifetime follows a U-shaped curve, with the young and the old the happiest and those in middle age the most unhappy, according to a new study.

Happiness is U-shaped: For those aged in their 30s and 40s feeling down in the dump, don’t worry - happiness is just around the corner. Photo: TheBlogIsMine/Flickr

Young people are carefree and optimistic about their future and dissatisfaction does not begin to kick in until they are in their late twenties, reports the Daily Telegraph (UK).

People over the age of 45 also rated highly on the happiness index, due to their acceptance and satisfaction with their lives, says Bert van Landeghem, an economist at Maastricht University in Belgium.

While young adults are carefree and full of hope for the future and the over-50s have come to terms with the trials of life, the research indicates that those in the middle feel weighed down by the demands on them.

The study found, however, that happiness dropped during middle-age, and the level of unhappiness experienced then could be “the equivalent to becoming unemployed or losing a family member.”

Studies around the world have shown that happiness tends to dip in midlife, said Mr van Landeghem, who will present his research at the Royal Economic Society annual conference at Royal Holloway,  the University of London, this week. And he added that this was not just a phenomenon confined to the Western world.

While he said happiness did return with age, he warned that older people did not actually recapture the spirit of their youth. They simply learnt to be satisfied with their lot.

“A U-shaped happiness curve does not necessarily imply that a 65 year-old prefers his own life to the life of a 25 year-old,” said the 29-year-old researcher.

“Both the 25 year-old and 65 year-old might agree that it is nicer to be 25 than to be 65. But the 65 year-old might nevertheless be more satisfied, as he has learned to be satisfied with what he has.”

It’s the latest in a long-line of hotly-debated scientific studies that measure people’s happiness. Psychologists concluded that having money makes you happier, but only if you have a lot more than your friends and neighbours.

Last month, Lewis Wolpert, emeritus professor of biology at University College London, said happiness could peak as late as 80. In his book called “You’re Looking Very Well,” Prof Wolpert said most people were “averagely happy” in their teens and 20s, but this declined until early middle age as they attempted to support a family and career.

Separately, a survey of 341,000 people by the American National Academy of Sciences found that happiness levels began climbing in the late forties and peaked at age 85.

The study attributed the spike in happiness to good health care and people doing more activities they enjoyed while cutting down on things they disliked.

Middle-aged people, on the other hand, were often burdened by financial and time obligations such as looking after children and caring for their parents.

Separate research found that owning the house of your dreams, the car you always longed for and having millions in the bank doesn’t stop that desire to keep up with the Joneses. And if the Joneses have more than you do, you’ll be miserable.

Psychologists looked at the happiness levels of 10,000 people who took part in the British Household Panel Survey last year and compared these with their income. The results showed that although salary is important to a certain extent, a person’s social standing or status matters more.

Researcher Dr Chris Boyce from the University of Warwick said: “The standard of living has gone up for each individual over the past 40 years but it has gone up for everyone,” said researcher Dr Chris Boyce from the University of Warwick.

“Our cars are faster now but our neighbours have faster cars too, so we haven’t got that advantage over people close to us. Without the biggest home, or the fastest car then it doesn’t give you that same excitement as it would have.

He added: “Earning $1 million a year appears not to be enough to make you happy if you know your friends all earn $2 million a year.” [via The Telegraph (UK) and Daily Mail (UK)]

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