Our happiness is represented by a U-shaped curve as we go through life, with 44 being the lowest and most depressing age; the bottom of the curve. As we age, we become more happy and up we go again. Here’s how it works…
Happiness in adulthood is U-shaped. Not to be confused with U and Non-U – the U in this case is visual, an emotional bell curve.
A global study conducted by Warwick University academics David Blancheflower and Andrew Oswald in 2008 found that in the UK we are happy and carefree in our younger adult years, slowly dropping down in our 20s and 30s before hitting ‘peak depression’ at the age of 44, and then steadily rising in happiness again as we age.
Across the world, the bottom of the curve hits different ages although there isn’t a huge variation, with the mean across all countries coming in at 46. But with all studies the general outcome was the same – every one had a U-shaped curve, and after 46, the only way is up.
HOW DOES THIS WORK?
Firstly it’s obviously worth pointing out that not everyone will have the same experience. Many of the factors that make us happy or depressed – relationship happiness, career success, life satisfaction, parenting – can happen at any time of life.
But as a rule of thumb, the U-shaped curve looks a bit like this….
We hit the ground running as we come into our youthful adulthood, aspirational and ambitious, and full of energy. As we work up through our 20s and 30s we achieve the goals we set out to score, but despite reaching those targets, we find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
…by the time we enter our 40s we’re disillusioned, questioning our life choices, maybe craving even more than we already have
As we lengthen into our late 30s, dissatisfaction creeps in, along with the ‘is that is?’ sensation, and by the time we enter our 40s we’re disillusioned, questioning our life choices, maybe craving even more than we already have. Often though, the slump isn’t about anything in particular, it can just be a slump. And by 44-46 we are likely to be at the lowest point, happiness-wise, of our whole lives.
But the good news is that seeing it through means there’s good times coming. And by 50 you’re well on the ascendant again. Assuming you’re lucky enough to get that far, 70 looks awesome, and that time between 50 and 70 is probably the best happiness zone of your life.
WHY IS THIS?
Firstly, looking at why our 20s and 30s are harder, it’s perhaps important to appreciate the pressure we put ourselves under. Pressure to look good, attract a mate, get the good job, have the nice home, travel the world, have money, have kids… it can feel like there is a lot to do.
Once we hit our 40s and we’ve done quite a lot of these things, there can perhaps be a sensation of there not being much left to do. Our vision is still skewed towards the ‘outward’. We’re also likely to be in positions of care – perhaps for our kids, or elder parent, often both. With work pressure and financial burdens added to the mix, it’s no wonder our 40s can look a bit grim.
As we age though, we become more aware of the smaller things in life bringing us greater pleasure. There is less pressure to ‘perform’ and certainly far less of a need to CONform. The freedom that age brings has a lot to do with this happiness upswing.
TELL US MORE ABOUT THIS FREEDOM AND HAPPY UPSWING
So firstly it’s rather lovely to identify that research shows this isn’t really about money or personal possessions or success in a material sense. It’s far more about the fact that as we age, we connect more with the things in life that actually bring us real happiness.
…in amongst that is also the joy of feeling happier with ourselves. Feeling less of a need to compete or strive for material success, less of a need to please other people
Appreciating the small things in life, being grateful, helping others, and enjoying friendships are just some of those things. As we get older we tend to feel more appreciative and thankful for love, life, and relationships. And engage with hobbies, creativity and improved social and familial relationships.
But in amongst that is also the joy of feeling happier with ourselves. Feeling less of a need to compete or strive for material success, less of a need to please other people, and an overall feeling of being more content with ourselves as human beings. And giving fewer f**ks.
Volunteering and helping others is something else that brings happiness, and in our latter years we have more time for this. And perhaps as the inevitable draws nearer, we come to realise that there’s no point sweating the small stuff. We are less likely to feel stress, regret, or experience negative emotions generally. Life’s too short, right?
Jonathan Rauch, author of The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, said in a Guardian article last year that he wishes he’d known what was around the corner when he was in the trough of the curve because, “It’s worth the wait.”
So we’re here to tell you instead. If you’re in the doldrums and you’re at the front end of your third life, take heart. It’s only going to get better.
Sam is Silver’s founder and editor-in-chief. She’s largely responsible for organising all the things, but still finds time to do the odd bit of writing. Not enough though. Send help.