How does happiness change as we age?
How does happiness change when we grow older and what does it have to do with our primate cousins?
Happiness is a tricky emotion to pin down and monitor due to its fluctuating nature throughout the course of our lives. It is generally assumed that happiness has a cyclical nature, as children we live a happy and carefree existence before becoming moody teenagers, then we settle down, regain our happiness before becoming increasingly grumpy with old age.
This cycle of happiness has now been proven wrong. It transpires that although happiness is in fact high when we’re young, it then steadily declines until we hit rock bottom at about 40, (could this explain the mid-life crisis?). Happiness then rises again, increasing as we grow older.
So it appears our happiness takes on a U-shape pattern over the course of our lives. This pattern has been documented in over 70 countries in both developing and developed countries, via surveys of more that 500,000 people.
So how do we explain this U-shape pattern? Could it have something to do with people trying to juggle children and careers in their 30′s and 40′s? It appears not. The findings have taken children into account and still record the U-shape pattern of happiness. The pattern also remains when other factors are accounted for, such as education, income and marital status.
Recently more light has been shed on the subject, when Professor Andrew Oswald and his team, (from the University of Warwick), reported that apes also share the U-shape pattern of happiness.
Of course, we are not able to discuss happiness with the apes themselves; instead the ape’s caregivers assessed the well-being of 508 apes. The conclusion was that apes were, like us, less happy during mid-life than in their youth and old age. These findings support the idea that the U-shape pattern is not linked to socioeconomic factors. This leaves two potential explanations…
One explanation is the ‘survival of the happiest’, as happiness is linked to longevity and longer life. This explains why the elderly people who remained for the scientists to assess were happier than the average 40 year old. However this does not explain the former part of the U-shape pattern.
The second explanation is that the both humans and apes incur similar changes in brain structure. One part of the brain that changes significantly throughout our lives is the frontal lobe. This lobe matures throughout our 20′s and then deteriorates at around 45. This means that while we develop, we increase our frontal-lobe function, which we then end up losing in later life.
Further research into the reasons behind the U-shape happiness pattern and into age-related brain changes could prove extremely beneficial, as we re-think the way society portrays its messages.
There are times in our lives both emotionally and physiologically when we are happier than others, if you are experiencing unhappiness and think you could benefit from speaking to a counsellor please see our depression page.
View and comment on the original BBC News article here.