By pure synchronicity I came in contact with two articles about levels of happiness this weekend. The first was a 2006 Harvard paper that took a look at how happy people in the USA were. Since 1972 several thousand people were asked each year “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days – would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy”. People were of all ages were combined and differences analyzed by comparing income levels, education, ethnicity, gender, etc.
A sobering overall conclusion was that since the 1970′s the general level of happiness has failed to grow in this country. At the same time income levels grew, discrimination by race and gender diminished markedly and the average level of education increased substantially. At first thought one would think that happiness surely would have charted better each year on those factors alone. But for the population at large, that is not what the facts say.
The second article was published a little over a year ago in the “Economist” and called “The U-Bend of Life”. Unlike the Harvard paper, global levels of happiness and well-being were looked at taking into account four main factors: gender, personality, external circumstances and age.
Generally women are slightly happier overall than men but are more susceptible to depression with about 20% of women saying they experience depression at some point in their lives compared to about 10% of men. Some suggest the percentages are probably about the same, but appear different due to men having more of a problem admitting depression and seeking help.
When personal traits were looked at, two showed themselves to be factors effecting happiness and well-being: neuroticism and extroversion. It comes as no surprise those prone to guilt, anger and anxiety tend to be unhappy. Studies over time have repeatedly shown being neurotic caused people to have negative feelings and low emotional intelligence which makes them bad at forming and managing relationships and that in turn makes them unhappy.
Being an extrovert does the opposite as being neurotic. Those who enjoy being around people, working with others and who relish social interaction tend to be happier than those who shut their office doors in the daytime or hole up at home in the evenings.
Then came the factor of age and the somewhat surprising statistic that in the great majority of countries people are at their unhappiest in their 40s and early 50s with a global average of 46. There were extremes when separated by individual country such as Ukrainians are at their most miserable at 62 and the Swiss at 35.
In 2006 in a Stanford study a group of 30 years olds and a group of 70 year olds were asked to rate their level of well-being and the 70 year olds were a lot happier. This difference is referred to as the “U-Bend” of aging where well-being consistently decreases until about fifty and then reverses to grow positively into old age. It was suggested that one explanation for this difference is that unhappy people die early. It is difficult to know for certain how much this factor needs to be taken into account. However, given that death in middle age is relatively rare it is likely to explain only a portion of the trend.
Another suggestion is differences could be an expression of external circumstances, Certain common factors affect people at particular stages of life. For example, people in their 40s, often have teenage children. Could the difficulty of the middle-aged have anything to do with sharing space with rebellious adolescents? Then older people tend to be more financially well off. Could their relative contentment be the result of their money?
The conclusion overall is people behave differently at different ages. Older people have fewer disagreements with others. They also come up with better solutions to conflict. They are better at controlling their emotions, better at accepting misfortune and less prone to anger. Maybe the experience for older people of contemporaries dying fairly frequently gives survivors determination to make the most of their remaining years.
Whatever the reason I am glad to have confirmed my growing feeling of well-being as I age is not an illusion. Further, I am grateful to know if I am blessed to live into old age, the odds are with me that my sense of well-being is likely to continue to grow!
The complete life, the perfect pattern, includes old age as well as youth and maturity. The beauty of the morning and the radiance of noon are good, but it would be a very silly person who drew the curtains and turned on the light in order to shut out the tranquility of the evening. Old age has its pleasures, which, though different, are not less than the pleasures of youth.
W. Somerset Maugham