X NSSC's Accessibility Options Click Here

"The U-Shaped Happiness Curve"

January 01, 2021

by Desiree Schippers

I’ve been surrounded by negative perceptions of aging throughout my entire life. From beauty advertisements urging me to rid myself of stubborn greys to movies portraying older adults as frail, helpless, and miserable, highly stigmatized attitudes toward aging are pervasive in American culture. From the way I would hear others speak, I grew up thinking there must be some sort of expiration date on happiness. Otherwise, why would people work so diligently to either prevent aging or pretend that it wasn’t happening? 

It turns out, happiness, when measured by overall emotional well-being and stability,  is a
U-shaped curve, according to the Brookings Institute and individual researchers such as David Blanchflower and Laura Carstensen.  This means, for most people, we are happiest as children. Then, as we get older, happiness goes on a steady decline until it bottoms out around the age of 50. For most people this seems to make sense. Think about middle adulthood. As we barrel toward middle age, many people get divorced, discover they hate their careers, or start to feel more pressure to achieve something meaningful before they reach a certain age. You’re old enough to have significant financial stressors such as mortgages, student loans (possibly for both you and your children) and are balancing saving for retirement with day-to-day expenses. On top of this, many middle-aged people are part of a sandwich generation, caring for their own children as well as their aging parents. This is also the prime time for many chronic health conditions to begin emerging such as diabetes, arthritis, depression, and other regular aches and pains. 

What happens after middle age is where things get interesting.
According to the ever-growing body of happiness research, people begin to feel much happier, past middle age. The direction of the curve flips completely and the line on the graph begins to ascend back to where it was in childhood, and, for most people who live past 90, the curve even surpasses the happiness levels of childhood!

But how could this be? Isn’t aging supposed to be one long march toward doom? Many researchers have tried to take a crack at this question and have come up with a common hypothesis: “As people age and time horizons grow shorter, people invest in what is most important, typically meaningful relationships, and derive increasingly greater satisfaction from these investments” (Laura Carstensen, as quoted in the Atlantic). It seems that as people reach middle age, they tend to shift their focus onto emotional wholeness and meaning, rather than social status and achievement. By being more introspective, using accumulated knowledge and experience to focus on emotional well-being, and strengthening relationships with the most important people in their lives, older adults tend to feel more content and satisfied with their lives.

No matter where we are on the curve, we can learn from our older peers: emotional well-being comes with experience, stability, and heavy investment into meaningful relationships. Armed with this knowledge, those who are headed for the bottom of the curve can find solace knowing that they are not alone and that most importantly, things will get better.