Life begins at 46. This headline on the cover of the December 2010 issue of The Economist attracted a lot of attention among the middle-aged. Including me. I won’t tell you my exact age but it’s somewhere around that number.
The Economist article was not one of those end-of-the-year lifestyle quizzes to find out your score on a well-being scale. Like typical Economist articles, it was really serious stuff based on sound science.
The article was about the so-called “U-Bend of Life”, a phenomenon of modern sociology which indicates that the happiness of our childhood wanes as we age and unhappiness reaches its nadir (lowest point) at around age 46, after which it goes up again. As the article goes on to say, we shouldn’t fear aging because
Indeed, at these times when we are bombarded with news about health problems especially among the elderly, this report is very comforting.
If you are to guess who is happier, a bunch of 30-year olds or a bunch of 70-year-olds, what would be your bet? I mean, you’d think that healthy 30-year olds at the prime of their life would be more contented with life than frail people in their 70s, right? Well, studies measured higher well-being among the elderly.
The skeptics would raise their eyebrows and argue that it is easy for the elderly to feel happy if they live in developed countries where healthcare and social benefits for the old are sufficient to enjoy life. However, it seems that the U-bend is evident in studies conducted in many different countries, rich and poor, and 40 years worth of data. The bend is very pronounced in some countries, less in many, the age of the all-time low may vary but the trend remains: the older we get, the happier we become.
In fact, the U-bend seems pretty universal even after taking into account socio-economic status, other demographic factors, cultural differences, and health. And the global average age of the least happy is 46.
So what’s the secret to the happiness of the elderly?
“Enjoyment and happiness dip in middle age, then pick up; stress rises during the early 20s, then falls sharply; worry peaks in middle age, and falls sharply thereafter; anger declines throughout life; sadness rises slightly in middle age, and falls thereafter.”
Personally, I believe I have reached my personal nadir and life is on the uptrend again. Suddenly, I am looking forward to aging…
Coming next: what determines happiness?