Welcome back for day 16 of my Happy.Healthy.Whole Project (HHWP)! If you’re just joining us you can get caught up on the previous days of the HHWP here.
Because my birthday is coming up, I’ve been thinking about a lot about age and happiness. I’m far from old, but definitely not a spring chicken anymore either!
Today’s post will dive into some research and try to answer the following questions:
- Does happiness change with age?
- At what stage of life are we the happiest?
Are you ready?
What Does The Research Have To Say About Happiness And Age?
To answer the questions above, I turned to the research. in the last decade there were two pretty interesting studies conducted about age and how it relates to happiness – one in the United Kingdom, and one in the United States.
How The Studies Were Performed
In these studies researchers called massive amounts of people (over 340,000 in the US study) of all different ages. The study participants were then asked all sorts of questions relating to their happiness and “psychological well-being”.
The Results Of The Studies on Happiness And Age
The UK and US studies both found similar results. Here are their conclusions about happiness and age:
- Happiness levels across all age groups were pretty much the same between men and women.
- The happiest life stage was from age 50 to 70.
- The second happiest life stage was before the age of 20.
- The least happiest lifestage, according to the studies, was between the ages of 20 and 50 (as they referred to as “middle life”.
- Happiness and age seem to have a “U-shaped curve” meaning that happiness is high in early and late life, but low in middle life.
Are these results what you expected? They definitely weren’t what I expected.
Limitations Of The Studies On Happiness And Age
All studies have limitations, meaning that they can’t control and monitor every little thing that might affect the results.
These two studies had several limitations that we should keep in mind.
First, the results of these studies explore the relationship between age and happiness in “high income nations”. The findings may not be as applicable to countries where poverty is common, so keep that in mind.
Second, these studies are what is referred to as cross-sectional. That’s just a fancy way of saying they looked at happiness, at only a single point in the person’s life rather than calling to have them complete this survey multiple times over the course of their lives, which would be called a longitudinal study.
Longitudinal studies are ideal, but as you might imagine, they take decades to complete. For this reason cross sectional studies are far more common. This isn’t to say that these studies aren’t useful though!
And third, these particular studies are sometimes considered controversial. I don’t think that the studies are wrong, I just think that they only paint PART of the picture. Let’s look at this last point in a little more detail.
A Partial Picture Of How Happiness Changes With Age
The questionnaires that these studies delivered by phone asked questions about overall “psychological well-being”. However, the authors did mention that their studies did not look at “hedonistic well-being.”
What does this mean?
Well if you remember our discussion way back on day 4 of my Happy.Healthy.Whole Project, you might recall that there are two types of happiness.
There is short-term happiness which we often call “pleasure” or “hedonistic”. Examples of this short-term happiness or pleasure would be things like, eating your favorite foods, grabbing a drink at happy hour with your friends, having sex, laughing and playing, enjoying leisure activities like television or video games etc. These things bring us short-term happiness.
And then there is the long-term happiness, which is often referred to as “overall well-being” or “purpose”.
This longer-term happiness and well-being is what these two studies looked at. They did not look at short-term happiness at all. They also, to my knowledge did not look at all at health, which can play a big role in happiness – even more so as we age I would guess.
The mind map below is one that I made during day 5 of my HHWP in order to look at all the factors that contribute to happiness according to modern psychological research.
I have modified this mind map to illustrate which parts of happiness this study looked at – those in the green boxes. Note that there are quite a few factors that contribute to happiness that these studies didn’t assess.
As you can see these studies only focused on part of the factors that lead to overall happiness.
So does this mean that these studies are worthless? Absolutely not! We know a lot more now than we did before they were conducted. But what it does mean is that there is still a lot we don’t know about happiness and age.
How Happiness Changes With Stage Of Life
Okay, now that we know what we are dealing with when it comes to the studies, let’s take a look at what we DO know about happiness during each stage of life, and discuss why happiness levels might be as they are in those particular stages.
<20 – Early Life
According to the studies, those under the age of 20 are relatively happy, but not nearly as much as those in late life. Why would this be?
Remember that the studies assessed overall “psychological well-being”. There are a whole lot of things going on during this stage of life including: fluctuating hormones, trying to fit in with their peers, figure out who they are as a person, school stress (grades, bullying, popularity) and general teenage angst etc.
It seems that all of these factors add up and decrease overall psychological well-being to some extent. But what we didn’t get to see in the studies was what the short-term happiness of early life looked like.
I would imagine that those under the age of 20 have a very high level of “pleasure” or hedonistic happiness. They have much fewer responsibilities, and are able to engage in plenty of social and “play” type activities.
I have heard many numbers thrown around in regards to how often people laugh based on age, and by some reports children laugh over 300 times a day where adults are said to laugh less than 20 times a day on average.I can’t verify these numbers, but I would tend to agree that children laugh more than adults.
So had the studies taken short-term happiness and physical health into account in people under the age of 20 – I would guess that their overall happiness would be higher than reported by the studies.
20-50 – Middle Life
According to the studies, this period of life was the least happy.
Researchers in the UK study noted that: ****
“As adults move towards middle age they often take on additional job and family responsibilities and can be increasingly troubled by job insecurity and future career uncertainty, as well as by childcare and commitments to elderly relatives. Conflicts between roles can become unusually great in these years, and income can increasingly fail to meet people’s needs.”
Overall, in this stage of life it seems that there is less time for hedonistic pleasures due to huge increases of responsibility.
According to the studies, the factors that lead to low overall psychological well-being in middle life are as follows:
- Low job satisfaction and high work-related stress levels.
- Family responsibilities can make people feel “hemmed in by their situation”.
- High levels of worry throughout middle life.
- High levels of work and family responsibilities.
- Childcare and caring for elderly relatives.
So as we can see there are a lot of stressors and responsibilities in this stage of life. What I think the study did not portray about this stage of life are several benefits that I personally have experienced, and I think others might as well.
Possible benefits of middle life that the study didn’t account for:
- Caring less about what others think.
- Increased self-confidence.
- Have a better idea about who they are as a person.
50-70 – Late Life
According to the studies, this stage of life was reported to be the happiest of all.
The research cited the following reasons for this being the case:
- Less job stress due to either being settled into their work roles, or having retired.
- Children may be out of the house, so childcare is no longer a concern.
- Less overall worry.
- Less demands on their time from family and social obligations.
What they didn’t mention at all in this stage of life that I think could potentially decrease overall well-being:
- Physical health – it is likely to have started to decline by this age which could significantly affect happiness.
- Physical changes such as menopause.
- Empty-nest syndrome.
- Boredom or lack of purpose after retirement.
>70 – End of Life
According to the studies, overall psychological well being starts to decline after 70 years old. However they still report that happiness in this level of life is greater than that of those under 20 years old, which I seem to find a little suspicious.
The things that may lead to a decline in overall psychological wellbeing over the age of 70 are:
- An increase in loneliness.
- Declining physical health and age related mental decline.
- Possible loss of independence as a result of declining health.
- Possible loss of purpose if they aren’t involved with family or in the community.
I think the biggest thing that I learned from this study is that there is still so much more that we have to learn about happiness!
While these studies don’t paint the full picture of happiness and how it relates from age, I still think there is a lot we can learn from them.
Take-aways from the two studies on happiness and age:
- Happiness levels do seem to change based on stage of life.
- Men and women appear to have similar happiness changes throughout life.
- Middle age (from 20-50) seems to be the most stressful part of life.
For me, personally, I have seen a much different pattern in my own happiness than what they found in the study.
By the time I hit about 14, until about my mid 20’s I was incredibly unhappy. Around the age of 28 or so, my happiness levels started to improve drastically as my sense of who I was as a person, as well as my self-confidence increased. I will be 35 in less than two weeks, and I feel that overall, my happiness levels are continuing to increase.
I’d love to know if and how your happiness levels have changed as you go through life!
- At what age did you think you were the happiest in your life (so far)?
- When were you most unhappy?
- What do you think caused those changes?
Let me know in the comments, I’m looking forward to hearing about your own happiness journeys on this one!