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Lifestyle: Life gets better after mid-life

18 Sep 2019

There is a tendency for humans life appreciation to wane from childhood through to somewhere in their 40s and then to wax from then on into older age.

It is known in the scientific literature as the Happiness Curve.

happiness curve

See The Happiness Curve, by Jonathan Rauch, Green Tree 2018.

Most of us have heard about the idea of a mid-life crisis and I even claim to have experienced one myself. However, the idea of the Happiness Curve is that it is a tendency within very large populations of people and it is not meant to necessarily be specific to any individual.

Some individuals may experience exactly the opposite effect in their lives -

 

a frown shape smile2rather than a smile shapefrown3 in other words, life appreciation or happiness builds from childhood right up through midlife to the top of the frown, then starts trending downhill into old age. An inverted smile curve. This might even be the more common expectation of how life is supposed to pan out with older age seen as a time of reduced purpose, health and well-being.

But not so. With the advent of large population samples, powerful computers and advanced statistical methods this ‘smile’ effect has been observed many times and has been independently replicated. The evidence is unmistakable. Life satisfaction or happiness tends to fall from youth into middle age and then improve from middle age onwards.

Youth is full of optimism and ‘sky’s the limit’. There is plenty of time left in life if things don’t start off perfectly, matching our dreams word for word. But at some stage as we age, we begin to realise that we might not become as famous, rich, happy, successful, clever or popular as we dreamed. Realism sets in.

This work on the happiness curve isn’t necessarily about the reality of one’s life; it is about feelings, not the actual level of success in life. Our author, Jonathan Rauch, talks about his dissatisfaction as ‘not making sense’ as during his mid-40s he was at the top of his game and this is often the case. All the outward signs of success somehow don’t marry up with the feelings of happiness or lack thereof. Happiness is obviously not rational nor is it necessarily linked to our level of outward success.

Studies show that the youthful optimism of people in their 20s about their future level of happiness tends to be unfounded. Gradually as we age into our 30s and 40s, our levels of optimism fall back into line with our actual levels of life satisfaction, around about the same time, our mid-40s, as our enjoyment and satisfaction with our lives bottoms and starts to improve.

As our life satisfaction levels build from midlife onwards, expectations of our future levels of life satisfaction fall providing on-going surprises as we age. Surprise, surprise. What could be better? Life feels good at 60 or 70 and it wasn’t expected to feel this good, which makes it feel even better.

Smile.

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