Happiness and Age are Related, But How?

The peaks of happiness occur in youth and then again in old age, according to the Daily Mail. Young people, meanwhile, tend to be too optimistic about future happiness, and elderly people have more pessimistic expectations.

The Daily Mail article refers to a recently published study by the Centre of Economic Performance at the London School of Economics. The paper looked at survey answers of 23,161 Germans about their current happiness as well as their expected satisfaction level in five years.

The results show a U-shaped trend in wellbeing from people in their 20s to the 60s and 70s; as people get to their 30s, general happiness begins to drop and doesn’t start to rise again until they people reach their late 50s. The author posits that young peoples' overly optimistic anticipation for the future could lead to disappointments that could explain the midlife drop in happiness. Adjusting these expectations could perhaps prevent that.

Problem solved. Individuals can simply look forward to less, and they’ll stay happy, right? Maybe, if the U-shaped model can be trusted.

Over the last two decades, people have become increasingly interested in the science behind happiness, spurring research in psychology and economics. The problem is, there are numerous competing models about who is happy and why they feel that happy. So far, no single hypothesis trumps the others.

A number of studies support the U-shaped happiness trend. Others, meanwhile, find that well-being generally improves as life progresses from young adulthood to old age. As people age, they become more capable of emotional regulation. With increased knowledge and maturity, people can draw upon their experiences in dealing with a variety of situations to achieve higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.

Two Australian researchers question the assertion that happiness takes a dip during people’s midlife years. Looking at raw data from Australia, Germany, and Britain, they found that the U-shapes are relatively weak, with Britain’s and Germany’s trends looking more like a wave. According to their findings, “happiness-increasing variables” — marriage, a new job, amd higher income — generate a more defined U-shape model in all three cases. This introduces, however, a “reverse causality issue," meaning that middle-aged people who experience these events are often already happy. When the data is adjusted for this inflation, the U-shape flattens out.    

This study does not negate the importance of papers on U-shape models. These conflicts in happiness theories also do not indicate that research into this area is useless. It just shows that there is no simple answer. It also shows the inherent difficulty of scientifically measuring as objective and volatile an emotion as happiness.

While it is very easy to take the findings of one study and think that the mystery to wellbeing has been solved, it is important to remember a few things. First, the field is still developing and expanding, as researchers hone their methodology and deepen their understanding of the human psyche. Even if the researchers could eventually come to an agreement, they would insist that the results still come from empirical studies and therefore do not apply to individual cases. For right now, there is, unfortunately, no magic key to happiness.