There’s a lot written about the U shape happiness curve, how happiness drops in adulthood, is at the lowest in our 40s, (it will often drop with work and family demands). Then the curve rises as we move into our 50s and 60s. But how true is this when you look deeper at the data?

I read an article recently by David Bartram, Associate Professor at the University of Leicester who has taken a close look at the research data.

I’ve always had a gut feel that it depends – fine if you are doing ok financially and in good health, but if you are in poor health, struggle financially, and there has been a death in your family, it’s a rare person who can look more philosophically in life and be happy despite this.

Turns out the statistics can be misleading. What they have done is to compare people of similar wealth and health in both middle and old age. But many older people have less money, and experience health difficulties and these are being ignored as researchers are looking to compare like with like. The difference is most noticeable in countries with lower welfare support such as Turkey and the Czech Republic. The better places to live for increased happiness are Netherlands and Finland.

My research focused on people who found meaning in later life, and the methodology I chose used in-depth interviews with a group from similar backgrounds. They were people who were financially comfortable, not struggling to pay their bills.

Whilst we can become wiser with age, not everyone does, and not everyone will become more appreciative of what we have and accept our mistakes, it is hard to take a zen like approach to life when you have long term health problems and can’t afford a holiday or car.

Taking a personal view I’m much happier at my age – 65, than I was twenty years ago despite a knee niggle and a lower income. I’m, happier with my lifestyle and have more interest in peace and balance than climbing the career ladder. But how would I feel if I struggled to walk, had other significant health issues, my partner was disabled and I’d lost my savings through poor financial decisions.  I know many people who focus on the past, and wish for things they no longer have such as their lost youth and the job they lost.

The article ends:

To get clarity on the patterns, we need an analysis that reflects what actually happens as people grow old. When we do the analysis this way, the U-shape disappears for many countries – mainly because many people are not, in fact, getting happier as they get older.

This reminds me of so many other research studies that get misinterpreted such as when people discuss the work of Professor Albert Mehrabian and say that communication is only 7% dependent on the words spoken and 55% is based on facial expression. His research was only based on communication of feelings and attitudes. We all know that people can say they are fine and clearly are not due to tone of voice, mannerisms, posture etc. Read more here, including a great simple video.

I’ve been looking deeper into this topic and found an article from 7 years ago that also disputed the U shape curve. This says that the well-being curve is seen more in high income nations and also refers to statistical issues. With some statistical corrections the U shape disappears and there is a gradual decline in happiness with age.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this.

Published On: September 6th, 2022 / Categories: Ageing, Retirement /