The U-Shaped Curve of Happiness

December 22, 2013 — Leave a comment

Want to be happy? Try being old or young.

Turning middle aged really is quite depressing, according to findings from a study across 21 European countries.

Orsolya Lelkes, economic policy analyst at the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research in Vienna, says that life satisfaction progresses along a U-shaped curve as one ages, starting out very high at the onset of adulthood, ages 16-29, moving steadily downward throughout ages 30-39, and bottoming out between 40 and 49 before rising again though the 50s and 60s.

The reasons for this dip may have as much to do with the economic and social pressures associated with adulthood as with the biology of aging, she says.

“It may not be aging per se which alters the level of life satisfaction, but other factors related to age groups,” writes Lelkes in her policy brief. “The divergence between aspirations and achievements may be a major source of discontent. Attitudes towards paid work may be an example of declining aspirations by age. Labour market issues, in particular individuals’ frustration about joblessness, tend to affect the working age population.”

The elderly are less likely to be in the labor market, and “attach smaller importance to it.” In other words, not having a good job is much more depressing for those in their 30s and 40s than it would be for those in their 20s or 50s. However, even middleagers who had attained high education and income still expressed lower life satisfaction than people in their 20s.

Other findings from the study:

* Higher-income groups are the most satisfied of all groups (not surprisingly). However, Lelkes notes an exception for people in the youngest age group who may still be in school or who may harbor unrealistic ideas about their future earning potential.

* Married people tend to be the most satisfied within all age groups.

* Leisure is an important factor in one’s happiness level, but its significance declines with age.

* Religion becomes more important with age, whether one considers oneself a churchgoer or not.

Lelkes concludes that the varying level of happiness across age groups can be explained by voluntary and involuntary factors, with involuntary factors, or “changing circumstances,” having a negative effect on happiness and voluntary factors, or “changing preferences,” having a positive effect.

“Exceptions are the few positive changes in circumstances [that] are likely to contribute to higher wellbeing, including increasing religiosity and relatively low pensioners’ poverty across the 21 European countries examined here,” writes Lelkes. “This issue calls for more attention and more research, especially in societies becoming increasingly old.”

– Patrick Tucker


Source: “Happiness Across the Life Cycle: Exploring Age-Specific Preferences” by Orsolya Lelkes. The European Centre. Web site

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2008.


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