Everybody’s life is filled with ups and downs, but new research suggests everyone’s life follows a particular pattern when it comes to our general contentedness. Around mid-life, we all seem to be pretty bummed.
Photo by steve p2008.
According a new analysis of life satisfaction from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which encompasses seven massive surveys and 1.3 million randomly sampled people from 51 countries, rock bottom is somewhere around the early 50s for most folks. On the other hand, people report being pretty happy in their early 20s and their 60s once retirement kicks in. All in all, our life seems to follow a specific parabola of satisfaction (The Washington Post has a great chart you can check out).
What's interesting is not all surveys used the same framing when asking people in different parts of the Western world how they felt at different points in their lives - some of them asked for ratings of general satisfaction, others were asked in terms of being happy or unhappy - but they all still roughly followed the same U-shaped pattern. Life starts out great, gets worse some time in your late 40s and early 50s, then gets better again. The concept of the "U-shaped happiness curve" isn't a new concept, and it's something that's even been observed with apes, but this new analysis shows how consistent the the curve is across a wide variety of different data sources.
Why are our 50s the low point? For one, the researchers point out that middle-aged people are often at the peak of their careers, which causes a great deal of stress. Alternatively, people are at the point where they feel like they should be at the peak of their career and they aren't even close. Also, by your 40s and 50s parents have children coming of age to worry about. It seems the oft-joked-about "midlife crisis" is a reaction to a very real low point.
If you want to mitigate the effects of this seemingly natural happiness curve throughout your own life, here are a few suggestions:
- Navigate your "quarter-life crisis": By the late 20s and early 30s, people's satisfaction seems to plummet. This is what some experts are calling the "quarter-life crisis". There are a few things you can do to overcome it.
- Know what happiness you can buy: Money can't buy you love (not emotional love anyway), but it can buy you some happiness if you spend it the right way. Buying experiences such as fun trips, putting money toward your financial security, and spending money on others can give you a lasting mood boost.
- Learn what happiness is by understanding what it isn't: Only you can truly define what true contentedness is to you, but there are some things experts are sure it isn't. For example, happiness is not always experiencing positive, pleasurable feelings; or never feeling negative emotions.
- Don't try so hard: Research suggests the harder you hunt for happiness, the least likely you are to find it. You're setting yourself up for failure and disappointment that way. I've described happiness in the past as "a feather slowly floating down from above. If you reach out to try and catch it, the feather will swirl away. But if you watch it and let it float down into your hand, you can finally grasp it."
- Have friends: Not only does isolation make you unhappy, it makes you very unhealthy - and that makes you even more unhappy. Having close relationships throughout your life is important.
Wherever you are in life, remember, more happiness doesn't necessarily mean a better life. There's more to your overall well-being than how happy you feel all the time. You need the bad to have the good, and lasting happiness is something you build within yourself by showing gratitude for the big and little things in life.