Is the happiness curve ‘overhyped’?

At EconoSpeak blog, Barkley Rosser, a distinguished economist at James Madison university, has a critique of The Happiness Curve. A few thoughts…

1. Rosser sets up a false dichotomy that defines away the interesting question. He is correct that the happiness curve is a statistical projection of the effect on subjective wellbeing of aging, isolated from other variables. This is a point I emphasize repeatedly in the book (not, as Rosser says, in “very slightly note[d]…caveats”). How individuals feel about their lives at any given time depends on many things (see, e.g., pages 69-75 of the book), and aging is just one of those things.

The book’s thesis is not that age, by itself, predicts happiness, but that age has an independent and significant effect, one which can operate in perverse and counterintuitive ways and is especially noticeable and puzzling to those who, like me, do not experience big fluctuations in the other variables. One need not choose between looking at unadjusted, as-experienced (“raw”) happiness and understanding the ceteris-paribus (“adjusted”) effect of aging. To the contrary, the only interesting thing to do is to understand how the variables interact; and the only way to do that is to explore lived lives and subjective experiences, as well as data, which is what I do.

2. The charge of cherry-picking is better aimed at Rosser than at me. He cites a single study, by Steptoe, Deaton, and Stone, who are very formidable scholars indeed (Stone’s work on stress is featured in my book), but who consider unadjusted (i.e., raw) happiness, as opposed to the independent effect of aging—a perfectly valid approach, but one that asks and answers a different question. For those who are interested in this important distinction and want a more thorough discussion of it, Blanchflower and Oswald explain it in more detail in this 2009 paper (PDF) and this 2017 paper (PDF).

Several other papers have taken issue with the U-curve finding. I chose not to include them because there are few of them; they are mostly old; they mostly are not about the phenomenon I’m concerned with (the independent effect of time on happiness, rather than unadjusted, average happiness levels); and the body of evidence supporting the U-shaped effect of time is now so large and variegated as to place an insurmountable burden on someone who would say the phenomenon does not exist or is not significant.

3. I don’t really understand Rosser’s complaint about country comparisons. I would have thought that including evidence that the happiness-age relationship varies across countries, and that no one pattern is universal, would be a mark in my favor, from a skeptic’s point of view. Again, this is not an “admission” (much less a “distortion”); it’s an important part of my argument, which is that what’s going on is complex and multivariate, and talking about, say, an inevitable midlife “crisis” gets the whole story wrong.

Be that as it may, if Rosser wants to assert that national or other variations and exceptions disprove the U-shaped relationship, taking potshots won’t suffice. He needs to contend with a well developed and sophisticated body of research (such as the 2017 paper mentioned above, which uses seven recent data sets, covering 51 countries and 1.3 million randomly sampled people, and finds the U-shaped pattern in all seven adjusted data sets as well as in five of the raw data sets).

Of course, science never closes its books. If my work stimulates Prof. Rosser or other talented scholars to pose new questions and challenges, that will make me happy.

“Apparently, I am quite normal!”

Laura writes:

I will turn 50 next year.  I have spent the last five years struggling with and succumbing to all of the internal rumination you so accurately articulated, although mine did spiral down as deep as clinical depression. With the help of therapy and medication, and a huge boost of serendipity, I managed to pull out of the clinical depression by the summer of 2016.  But the deep malaise has persisted. I could find no answers or effective modalities to relieve it. This year, I decided I must be genetically or spiritually cursed and resigned myself to living the rest of my life in a perpetual dark night of the soul. From time to time, I would pray to the universe for something, anything, to help me find my way back to some sort of ‘normalcy.’

Your book told me I am not broken or fundamentally flawed. Apparently, I am quite normal!  And there is a light at the end of the tunnel and potential for maybe even experiencing more contentment, if not happiness, than I have ever known before I die. Just knowing that is a true possibility is like having a breeze hit my sail after years of no wind at all.

Comment: Knowing about the happiness curve is no cure-all. It will not banish depression, for example. But it is an important piece of the puzzle. Realizing that midlife dissatisfaction, in and of itself, is not a form of brokenness and is not a permanent condition can bring great relief.

This knowledge needs to become much more common!

“Maybe I need to create more goals”

An email from Nick:

I’m turning 38 at the end of May and have a great life. In the last 10 years, I’ve written down numerous goals and have checked them all off, surprising myself along the way. Yet I felt a malaise these past few months and I couldn’t identify it. I thought, “maybe I need to create more goals, new goals.” But nothing really comes to mind. And deep down I don’t believe doing so would alleviate how I feel.

What you talk about, regarding the curve, makes perfect sense, and has provided me with great relief.

Thank you for your work. It’s come at a perfect time in my life.

First comment: You’re welcome! I tried to write the book that I wish I could have read when I was turning 38 and felt exactly the same stirrings of unfounded dissatisfaction that Nick feels.

Second comment: Nick is an example of how just knowing about the U-shaped happiness curve can help allay its effects. Though there’s nothing wrong with setting and pursuing new goals, creating them artificially, and even achieving them, is unlikely to shake off the kind of dissatisfaction Nick seems to be feeling. His disappointment is caused by what he feels is his failure to appreciate his success—not by his failure to achieve success. Weirdly, setting and meeting new goals, while very possibly worthwhile in its own right (I’m not against ambition!), can compound his dissatisfaction by widening the gap between what he has accomplished and how he feels about his accomplishments.

That is the so-called negative feedback trap. It can lead to despair about ever being able to feel fulfilled.

In time it diminishes as age reorients us away from the status chase. Meanwhile, awareness of the trap gives Nick some leverage against it. Knowing that the cause of his dissatisfaction may be inside himself helps prevent wild goose chases and unnecessary self-blame.

“I wish I’d done these things all my life”

A reader, T., writes:

This past year, at 57, I’ve taken up learning to ride English style, learning to row (sculling and sweeps), and improving my archery skills in the back yard. I ride twice a week, and row at least 3 times a week. I wish I’d done these things all my life, and I am beyond grateful that I am getting to do them now.

Comment: Interviewing people for my book, I was struck by how many stories I heard like this one, of people in midlife and late adulthood discovering joy in new hobbies and pursuits. One woman was making jewelry; another was rescuing raptors.

Notice, though, what’s happening here reflects change in who we are, not just what we do. As we age, we gain capacity to find satisfaction in pursuits and relationships that might have seemed trivial or time-wasting to our younger, more ambitious, more status-oriented selves.

That’s part of why the relinquishment of social ambition in later adulthood—the chase for big achievements—does not seem like a loss or impoverishment. As we become more able to find hidden depths in simple things, we let go of the burden of grandiosity.

“I wish I’d done these things all my life,” says T. But chances are that if she had done the same things 25 years ago, they would have felt different. To some extent, she is experiencing the upside of aging.

“What am I missing?”