Midlife offers the least amount of happiness for individuals across countries, economic status, and marital status, say researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College. When charting levels of happiness, says the study, the highest levels of joy exist during one’s youth and one’s golden years, producing a dip in mid-life, creating a U-shaped curve (which, curiously, looks like a smile).
Culled from data examining individuals’ happiness levels in 80 countries, including those who are married, single, rich and poor, the U-curve demonstrated a peak in happiness at around age 40 for women, and age 50 for men. The results contradict previous studies which stated that happiness tends to follow a relatively consistent, flat, level pattern throughout our lifetimes. The study authors, economists Professor Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick and Professor David Blanchflower from Dartmouth College in the US, contend that the changes in happiness through life stages are innate, not influenced by events like divorce, employment, finances, or childbearing. In other words, this mid-life dip in happiness is consistent across all these socio-economic lines.
“Some people suffer more than others but in our data the average effect is large,” University of Warwick Economics Professor Andrew Oswald said in a public statement. “It happens to men and women, to single and married people, to rich and poor, and to those with and without children. Nobody knows why we see this consistency.”
Oswald suspects that “one possibility is that individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses, and in mid-life quell their infeasible aspirations. Another possibility is that cheerful people live systematically longer.”
As people age, opportunities for comparison multiply, thereby offering aging individuals more chances to be grateful for what they have. “A third possibility is that a kind of comparison process is at work in which people have seen similar-aged peers die and value more their own remaining years. Perhaps people somehow learn to count their blessings,” Oswald said publicly.
Oswald suggests that the changes in happiness are a result of innate, rather than situational, factors. “It looks from the data like something happens deep inside humans. For the average person in the modern world, the dip in mental health and happiness comes on slowly, not suddenly in a single year,” Oswald said in a public statement. “Only in their 50s do most people emerge from the low period. But encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20 year old. Perhaps realizing that such feelings are completely normal in midlife might even help individuals survive this phase better.”
Joe W. Hatcher, PhD, psychology professor at Wisconsin-based Ripon College, says the study is “impressive,” citing “lots of data points from lots of different cultures.” Hatcher, who focuses on positive psychology and the study of happiness, points out that the study indicates that “there is a trend toward less happiness during one’s middle life [which is] different from saying ‘unhappiness.’”
The study results, says Hatcher, merely indicate “that one’s place in life is one factor that apparently affects happiness in a measurable way. It doesn’t mean the effect is a large one in everyone’s life, and it certainly does not mean that it’s the only factor, just one among many. So it doesn’t mean that 40-year olds are all going to be unhappy, just that, all things being equal, they may be a little less happy than at other times of their life.
Those entering the mid-life stage, Hatcher says, “may then need to be especially careful to do things that maintain or increase happiness, as would be a good idea at any time of life” The psychologist advises that one should tell oneself, “’I should just do what I would do anyway, notice the positives in my day, promote good relationships with others, be sure I do things that are meaningful, engaging, and pleasurable once a day.’”
The mind-body connection is important, Hatcher says, noting Oswald’s assertion that physical fitness plays a role in one’s level of happiness, especially as one ages. “It may just be more important to physically exercise, rather than a cause for discouragement,” Hatcher states. “We typically gain five to ten pounds between [ages] 40 and 50. If you know that, you can take steps to counteract it, rather than just allowing it to happen.”
The mid-life stage seems far away for many, and little thought is given as to what that life stage means until one approaches its threshold. “Forty is not such a big number in your daily life, until it’s around the corner from your 39th birthday,” says licensed clinical social worker Tania M. Paredes.
Middle age is the time when individuals begin to deeply contemplate their accomplishments and goals, says Paredes, who is also professor of Social Work at Miami-Florida-based Barry University. People begin to say themselves, “’What have I done with myself? What have I accomplished with my life?’” Paredes says. “’Do I still have enough time to reach the goals that once inspired me to do what I hoped to achieve as an adult? Fifty isn’t so far away anymore.’ These are the thoughts one starts to have in their 40’s.”
What does Paredes, who specializes in treating anxiety and depression, consider the reason for the middle age dip in happiness? “’Mid-life’ is the term being used to describe having been tempered enough by life to honestly review accomplishments and how your existence has impacted your world and others,” she says. “Such thoughts and introspections can have an enormous impact on one’s morale and self assurance, suddenly taking in who you were and who you’ve become, but more importantly how much more time you have to change it.”
This can contribute to a sense of urgency for those who feel they have failed to live up to their own and others’ expectations. “Many people start to see their expectations of self and life and career which they thought was fair, now, as unrealistic and unattainable. The body starts to mimic how you feel, and your age suddenly becomes a brake for movement,” Paredes says
Like Hatcher, Paredes says that people can fight the tendency to suffer the midlife blues. “To combat this ‘natural’ state you can’t dishearten, as all hope is not lost,” advises the social worker, who heads private practices in Miami and Fort Lauderdale. “Change your focus and your perspective. Reassessing your life and resetting your goals is just another stage in your lifetime.”
By embracing the advantages that come with age, and by focusing on their loved ones, people can gain a more positive perspective at mid-life. “Refocus on healthy supportive relationships. Armed with the knowledge and experience of four decades you are better prepared to move forward than any other time in your past.” Paredes says. “Start to see not how much time you have left, but how much more time you can have to start to make these changes and start to accomplish new goals.”
Jay Winner, M.D. author of the forthcoming book and CD set Take the Stress Out of Your Life: A Medical Doctor’s Proven Program to Minimize Stress and Maximize Health, agrees that unmet expectations may be responsible for the mid-life joy dip. “In their 20s and 30s, many people have very lofty goals for their lives. As people reach their 40s, they take time to reassess these goals, and many come to the conclusion that they will not be able to reach what were their highest aspirations,” Winner states.
To maintain happiness, individuals need to figure out the best way to cope with the realization that their long-set goals may never be attained, or may need to re-evaluated. “As people hit their 50s, they may learn to accept that they need to set less ambitious goals and learn to be happy with these modified aspirations,” Winner explains.
To avoid the mid-life slump, look to other roads to happiness, says Winner, especially is one has found that career goals have remained unmet. “There are other ways to find meaning, including volunteer activities, raising children, and helping friends. On the whole, people do not pay enough attention to the difference that they make in their current circumstances,” Winner says.
The key is to forego harsh self-judgment and consider current achievements, recognizing the value in what one has accomplished and continues to achieve on a daily basis. “Okay, so you haven’t ended world hunger and single-handedly brought peace to all nations—take few moments on a regular basis to list how you already make a difference in the various areas of your life. For instance, is selling flowers just your mundane job, or do you pay attention how it brings joy to others?” Winner says.
The doctor agrees with study author Oswald that “counting your blessings” is another key to maintaining joy. “’Counting one’s blessings’ can either be thought of as a worn out catch phrase, or as one of the ways to increase happiness. Even if it sounds quaint, experiment one day: multiple times during that day, list five things in life for which you are grateful and see how you feel,” Winner advises.
We have more control over our feelings of well-being than we realize, says Winner, and we must “train” ourselves to exercise some control over our happiness. “Don’t be fatalistic that your 40s will be depressing,” he says. “You wouldn’t think about running a marathon without training your body. Recent research shows us that, by training our minds, we can actually change the structure and function of the brain. There is hard evidence that simple practices in mindfulness and in cultivating compassion can increase our happiness set point.”