Happiness Smackdown!


Over at Slate, Joel Waldfogel reads a new study and concludes that Happiness is… not being middle-aged:

Blanchflower and Oswald found that for both men and women in the United States and throughout Europe, happiness starts off relatively high in early adulthood, then falls, bottoming out on average around age 45, and then rises after that year and on into old age…

So, why does happiness start strong, dip with middle age, and then revive among the elderly? The authors—they're economists, after all—can do little more than speculate about the causes of the midlife happiness crisis. They propose that people come to understand their strengths and weaknesses and "in mid-life quell the infeasible aspirations of their youth."

Mid-lifers hate their lives even more than the rest of us, then, and early Gen Xers are rapidly approaching rock bottom. Expect your adultescent friends to become sad sack depressives any day now. Except that, as renowned Happinessologist Will Wilkinson points out on his Happiness Blog, the posited "midlife happiness crisis" is based on a misreading of the research:

But that's not what the paper is about. It is about the effect of age, per se, on happiness. That is to say, they're filtering out various correlates of age, like wealth and health, which generally have large effects on life-satisfaction. So this is a study of how happy people are with their age at various ages. The paper, as far as I understand it, says that people are least happy with their age at middle age. It does not say that people are least happy at middle age. Sadly, this completely ruins Waldfogel's Slate piece.

Wilkinson imparts more happiness wisdom in the pages of Reason here.

NEXT: South Park Confidential

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Maybe it’s all related to how increasingly bad their spouse looks naked and the growing realization they are trapped in a hollow, sexless marriage. Around 45 they just give up or get divorced.

    People who no longer give a flying fig are often quite happy.

  2. Yesterday, “prostitots”.

    Today, “adultescent”.

    God I love the English language.

    Oddly, I will be 45 in a few months, and I think I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been.

    Which, considering my generally smug outlook on life, and my absolutely bullet-proof self-esteem, is pretty darn happy.

  3. An age is an age and none are better than any other one. Yes, we lose certain things (like flexibility, energy) when we age, but we gain an equally, if not more, important thing(wisdom). What a twisted society in which we live where people fret about their fucking AGE.

  4. It makes perfect sense. You start off glad to be young, but that sense of happiness gradually diminishes as you age. Then there comes a point where you come to terms with your lost youth and you’r just just happy to still be alive, a sense of happiness that naturally increases with each year (provided you’re in relatively good health).

  5. This is just my opinion, from a 27 year old, not yet close to mid-life…

    In early adulthood, you tend to think, “I’ve got plenty of life to achieve those goals…fuck it, let’s have fun.” You’re happy and you’re content with the fact that you can still achieve those goals within the next 30ish years.

    In mid-life, you look back and say, “I never achieved all those goals. I’m such a loser. Why didn’t I try harder, go a different route, etc.” You then try to do as much as you can to achieve missed goals, but when you fail you get utterly depressed.

    In your golden years, you realize that your goals may have been far fetched. You realize that you have been successful in achieving most goals, at least to a certain extent, and are content with that much. So, you say, “fuck it, let’s have some fun.”

    Just my take on the whole thing.

  6. You mean there is a part where one is happy before middle age?

  7. Oh fuck me. Five more years on the downward spiral? Just pull the trigger, Professor Happy.

  8. So, why does happiness start strong, dip with middle age, and then revive among the elderly?

    One word: Responsibility.

  9. It’s like the study that showed both 1st- and 3rd-prize winners felt better about their accomplishments than 2nd-prize winners. The explanation was that 2nd-prize-winners compare their state unfavorably with what they almost won, and the 3rd-prize-winners compare their state favorably to the alternative of having won no prize.

  10. So, why does happiness start strong, dip with middle age, and then revive among the elderly?

    Teenagers. Life begins when the kids move out and the dog dies . .

  11. I turn 40 this year, and I’m considerably happier than I was ten years ago. Yeah, I’m not as fast as I used to be, but it’s amazing to see and recognize the patterns of life and people in way you wouldn’t have dreamed of at 20 or 30. Of course, along with that comes the realization that people simply redo the same stupid mistakes generation after generation. But that’s life.

  12. Happiness depends on whether you have a Doberman.

  13. Wouldn’t this issue have been better (or more entertainingly) addressed by David “shaving yet?” Weigel?

  14. They needed a study to find this out?

    Hell, all they needed to do was ask me.

  15. I advise everyone not to get old. Wisdom is a lousy companion. I know from experience.

  16. You’re getting wisdom? I got gypped on that too.

    I’m really looking for the upside about getting older, really I am. I just ain’t seeing it.

  17. A lot of talk about lifetime goals. I typically avoid setting goals for myself. I’ve done it twice, when necessary, but it really wears on me hard. The first was to find a woman I wanted to marry while in college. I figured once I left college it would be harder to meet women (I was right). When I met my wife it was a bitch trying to rope her into the deal. She was five years younger than me, beautiful, and going places. Way out of my league. The second was more recent. Over the past year I decided I wanted a career. I’ve always looked at employment as a necessary burden. I’m still not quite sure what go into me. Anyway, my wife is a professional also, so it became exceedingly difficult to work a pair-wise solution. So I just ditched the career thing. I feel much better. Goals are overrated. I’ve wandered more or less aimlessly through life and am very happy with how it’s all turned out to date. But I am only 33.

  18. Happiness research is crap. It makes me think that specialization has gone too far.

  19. Christ, pigwiggle, if I had a hot younger wife with a great job supporting me, I’d be pretty fucking happy, too.

  20. For me the mid-life thing doesn’t even fit on the research scale. The high’s are just more mellow and the low’s are more bitter. I see and understand shit that I didn’t in my 20’s and 30’s.

    Can’t figure out if excercise makes sense or if it’s a left over communist plot (leaning toward the latter). Everyone in my mid-40’s age group that didn’t excercise, is now out of shape. Everyone who did, now has some kind of injury from it. Including me, who swam a mile a day 4X/week for twenty years, until one day a few years back my shoulder mysteriously blew out. Docs still don’t know what’s wrong.

    Wisdom is great, but so is having a young body that can still tolerate some abuse. Having both at once would be godly.

    In fact, the only reason I read Reason is so I’ll be there when Ron tells us where that Pill of Youth is.

  21. I can’t say that I’m any less happy now than I was ten years ago. But I’m only 40. Will this be a sudden change? 🙂


    I tore my calf muscle playing football with the kids on Christmas. I work out and use an elliptical machine regularly (and hike irregularly). But I still got injured.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.