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Viewpoint: How happiness changes with age

When it comes to happiness, it seems that the young and the old have the secret. And it turns out what’s true for humans is also true for our primate cousins, explains neuroscientist Tali Sharot.

How does happiness change with age?

Most people assume that as children we live a carefree existence, then we go through the miserable confusion of teenage years (“Who am I?”) but regain happiness once we figure it all out and settle down, only to then grow grumpy and lonely with every additional wrinkle and grey hair.

Well, this is utterly wrong.

It turns out that happiness is indeed high in youth, but declines steadily hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s – midlife crisis, anyone? Then, miraculously, our sense of happiness takes a turn for the better, increasing as we grow older.

This U-shape pattern of happiness over the life span (high during youth and old age, low during midlife) has been observed across the globe, from Switzerland to Ecuador, Romania to China. All in all, it has been documented in more than 70 countries, in surveys of more than 500,000 people in both developing and developed countries.

How can we explain these counter-intuitive findings?

Does it have something to do with juggling kids and careers in our 30s and 40s? Apparently not. Even after accounting for the presence of kids in the household the U-shape pattern of happiness remains.

Perhaps the pattern is due to generational differences? But the studies did not follow the same individuals throughout life, but rather different individuals of different ages.

Could it be that teenagers and the elderly are happier than the middle-aged because they were born during better times? No, again – this does not seem to affect the U-shape pattern. It also persists when other demographic factors are accounted for, including marital status, education, employment status, and income.

Then, just last month, a group led by Prof Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick, reported that happiness of our evolutionary cousins – the great apes – also follows a U-shape pattern throughout life.

Of course we cannot ask apes to rate their life satisfaction on a scale from one to 10. But the well-being of 508 apes was estimated by asking their human care-givers to assess it. Apes, like humans, were less happy during midlife than when younger or older.

The existence of a midlife crisis in the great ape strengthens the notion that the pattern of happiness throughout life is not due to socioeconomic factors. This leaves two likely explanations.

Firstly, “the survival of the happiest” – happiness is known to be related to longevity. Put simply, the happier live longer, while the pessimistic die prematurely, possibly because the latter experience more stress, which impacts on health negatively.

Read full story on BBC News

Category: World News |

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Last updated October 26, 2016 at 10:54 PM
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