Is the happiness curve everywhere? How big are its implications? Important new research by David Blanchflower, an economist at Dartmouth and pioneering researcher on wellbeing, suggests the answers are yes and quite.
The happiness curve is the tendency for life satisfaction to dip in midlife, a pattern which has been found in people around the world and even in chimps and orangutans. Even as evidence has mounted for it, some psychologists, economists, and other scholars have remained unconvinced. In the October 28 issue of The New Yorker, a literary critic named Arthur Krystal wrote this about the U-curve:
Lately, however, the curve has invited skepticism. Apparently, its trajectory holds true mainly in countries where the median wage is high and people tend to live longer or, alternatively, where the poor feel resentment more keenly during middle age and don’t mind saying so.
Krystal cited no evidence for his claim that the happiness curve is a first-world phenomenon, nor had I heard of any—and neither had Blanchflower, so he decided to check it out.
The result is the most comprehensive data analysis yet performed on the relationship between happiness and age. Blanchflower crunched data on about 10 million people and 132 countries. The U-shaped curve shows up almost everywhere: in rich, poor, and middling countries; where median wages are low and high; in Europe, Asia, North America, South America, Australasia, and Africa; in countries with high and low life expectancy. In advanced countries, the happiness curve bottoms out at about age 47; in developing countries, at about age 48. Exceptions are few and mostly where data are poor or non-existent. So much for first-world phenomenon. As Blanchflower concludes, “The happiness curve is everywhere.”
Those findings reveal what Blanchflower says is as close to a universal phenomenon as he has seen in his two decades studying wellbeing data. I’ll be interested to see if anyone pokes holes in them, but I suspect future scholars will identify right now as the time when the U-curve passed from being a strong hypothesis to being an established fact. At a minimum, anyone who wishes to pooh-pooh the idea from now on needs to bring some new evidence to the table, not just gestural dismissals.
Blanchflower’s second paper is, if anything, even more important. Again using more data than in any previous research, he shows that there is also an unhappiness curve. On 15 measures of unhappiness, ranging from despair and anxiety to phobias and poor sleep, he finds the mirror image of the U-shaped happiness curve, with unhappiness hill-shaped and peaking in midlife. In other words, the midlife life-satisfaction dip is reflected in real people’s lives in all kinds of ways.
Moreover, being middle-aged can compound other risk factors for misery. In other words, middle-aged people dealing with problems like unemployment, financial stress, and fraying communities have both their age and their life circumstances working against them. “The finding of a dip in wellbeing in midlife likely adds important support to the notion that being in one’s forties and fifties exacerbates vulnerability to disadvantages and shocks,” writes Blanchflower.
And still more: often these same stressed people have comparatively little by way of financial and social capital to draw on for support. “The lack of social cohesion made it harder for the weak and the vulnerable, including those going through what looks like a very natural midlife nadir of happiness,” he writes. The Great Recession brought the problem to a boil, he suspects. “In the years since the Great Recession, especially bad things seem to be happening to the prime-aged, and particularly those with less education, who are feeling left behind.”
No believes that midlife unhappiness is the only driver of, say, deaths of despair. But it is clearly a factor, and it clearly needs to be moved to the foreground of the conversation. Americans expect ourselves and each other to be at the peak of emotional self-reliance and mastery in our forties and early fifties, but the reality is that midlife is a time of unusual emotional vulnerability—and too many Americans and communities, as Blanchflower says, are breaking under the strain.