Happiness and age

Happiness and age

When have you been at your happiest?  Do our happiness levels change throughout our life? Does happiness depend on your age?

This week we’re talking about the link between happiness and age and thinking about how happy we are at different stages of our live, does it change and what does it mean for us.

When have you been at your happiest?

When you look back are there times when you felt really happy?

Was it your childhood, first love, student days, staring out with your career or family, or maybe getting a big promotion.

We tend to look back at happier times, which might make us think we were happier when we were younger, and our carefree school days or at least the long summer school holidays were a time of happiness.

We didn’t have to worry about paying the mortgage or bills but there were probably other insecurities, maybe a worry about what others thought and wanting to fit in, not to mention the pressure of homework and exams.

Whilst for those who couldn’t wait to become an adult, the happy times began with leaving home and starting out on your own.

Age as a happiness factor

Although individual circumstances vary, according to research our happiness levels change throughout our lives, so how happy you feel could also be influenced by your age.

According to a study by Dr Hannes Schwandt of Princeton University for the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, we’re happiest at 23 and 69, and unhappiest in our mid 50s.

Our happiness levels are U shaped throughout our life.

The optimism of youth and looking forward to future achievement accounts for a peak of happiness at 23. But the other happiest age of 69 is more surprising.

Life is exciting in our twenties and thirties, getting on at work, maybe meeting a partner and starting a family.

And then you get into your 40s and 50s and the pressures started building. You’re getting higher up in your career with more responsibility, or re-entering the workforce after having a family. Your children are getting older, bringing different pressures to bear on you from one end, whilst aging parents present another dimension of worry and potential stress. You’re caught somewhere in the middle.

The LSE study was based on a study of a panel 132,609 life satisfaction expectations matched with subsequent realisations. And one of the striking things about their findings is that there was little variance between socio economic or culturally diverse groups or genders.

And happiness and age graphthis U shaped pattern of happiness over the life span (high during youth and old age, low during midlife) has been observed in other studies also. It seems to hold around the world and has been documented in more than 70 countries, in surveys of more than 500,000 people in both developing and developed countries, according to a paper by David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswold of Warwick University,Is Well-being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?

The researchers in the LSC paper measured people’s expected life satisfaction and actual life satisfaction, and it basically showed that we aren’t very good at estimating how happy we will be in the future.

Why? Because we all tend to overestimate the likelihood of positive events and underestimate the likelihood of negative events. This is the optimism bias. So e.g. we tend to expect to be healthy in spite of an unhealthy lifestyle.

According to neuroscientific research this ‘optimism bias’ is due to the selective processing of negative and positive information in the frontal brain and this is what which allows us to hang on to our biased expectations even when confronted with evidence to the contrary.

Basically we’re not very good at estimating how happy we’ll be as a young or older person – but there’s a difference in the reason why.

Young people tend to overestimate their future life satisfaction or future happiness while older people underestimate it.

So as young people we expect to be happier in the future whilst we’re young but expect to be less happy as we get older.

But this isn’t what actually happens.

One of the reasons is we overestimate the impact future changes will have on our happiness. This is because we don’t realise how quickly we adapt to life changes such as changes in income.  We think earning more money will have a bigger longer lasting effect on our life than it actually does, because we very quickly adapt to the new situation and become used to it.

At the other end of the spectrum, we anticipate a drop in income when we become elderly and we think this will have a big negative impact on our happiness levels and satisfaction with life. Once again we overestimate the impact this will have because we adapt to it quickly.

That explains the high points, but what happens in the middle at the bottom or low point of the happiness age bias U shape.

The researchers put the midlife dip in wellbeing down to unmet expectations.

When we’re young we have high expectations but as we get into middle age we realise we’re not going to achieve everything we thought we would or wanted to, and we start to abandon our higher unmet expectations.

Then as we get older we have less expectation of doing so much and become more accepting of our situation or as the researchers say – we experience less regret. So from our late 50s wellbeing starts to increase again.

According to an article in the Huffington post – it keeps rising until we’re 85 – which is good news because it was also found that those who stay positive live 7.5 years longer.

Other reasons why people get happier as they get older are that happy people live longer and it has been found that as people age they enjoy “ordinary” experiences more.

People become more satisfied with their life through family, health, and home, and have more time and energy for hobbies and interests.

“I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.” ― Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

What does this mean for us – is there anything we can learn from this?

It means you’re fine if you’re 23 or 69 – because they’re your happiest times of life.

Of course academic studies don’t directly reflect our experience on an individual level in this way really.  But there are some general points we can take away.

Firstly to be aware of what these studies about happiness and age tell us:

  • How we over and underestimate our predicted levels of happiness and why.
  • How we can adjust our expectations and not worry so much about not meeting aspirations.
  • The merits of recognising and appreciating our everyday more ordinary experiences now. Not waiting until we’re older, but appreciating them right now as this will help to increase our happiness.
  • Our happiness levels are so much to do with perception.
  • Although there may be generalised times in our lives when we are less happy or more happy, there is nothing inevitable about it.

And finally just because it looks like 69 and thereabouts might be a high point, happiness isn’t something to wait until you’re 69 to experience.

The Changeability Podcast Episode 57

Hear us discuss all of this and more in episode 57 of the Changeability Podcast including:

  • What we’ve been doing in a film this week
  • What we learnt from an interview with top director Paul Greengrass at our local cinema
  • How failure leads to happiness
  • At what ages we’ re happiest in life according to 500,000 people
  • What is optimism bias and what does it mean for us
  • The surprising truth about old age and happiness
  • What causes the midlife dip in wellbeing
  • What we can learn now from studies of happiness to make us happier now – whatever our age

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