Happiness is U-Shaped
If the mid life crisis exists, and we could give it a shape, it would appear to us in the form of the letter u. More accurately, our darkest moments would be at the bottom of the curve, and would affect us in our middle age. New research published in the Journal of Social Science and Medicine states that happiness follows a u-shaped curve, regardless of where you live and independent of gender, economic status and a range of other factors.
The very act of getting older puts people in a slump by their 40s. Women in the United States seem to hit the slump around the age of 40, whereas men hold out a little longer until the age of 50. Canadian men and women share a broadly similar low point around the age of 44, a profile shared with men and women in Britain.
Dr Andrew Oswald, an economist working at the University of Warwick, UK, reviewed data from 1972, collected from two million people from 80 different countries. According to Oswald, mental distress reaches a maximum in middle age after which people seem to bounce back around the age of 50 or 60.
Commenting on the findings, Toronto psychiatrist Robert Cooke stated that it is unclear whether people diagnosed with clinical depression follow the u-curve. Cooke feels that a useful aspect of the research is that it points to certain times of life when it is quite normal not to feel happy, and that this is not the fault of the individual.
Dr Oswald explained the findings by suggesting that when people reach their 40s they reach a point when they are faced with their own unfulfilled dreams and personal weaknesses. This, coupled with a sense of time passing and the increasing likelihood of friends and relatives dying, could all point to reasons why we reach a psychological low point.
“encouragingly, by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit then on average you are as happy as a 20-year old”, said Oswald.
The u-shaped trajectory is something Dr Oswald has explored in a variety of contexts. In terms of job satisfaction he says there are persuasive arguments and some empirical evidence that satisfaction declines in the early years of employment and then increases steadily up to retirement.
Clark, A., Oswald, A., Warr, P. (1996) Is Job Satisfaction U-shaped? in Age? Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology (69) 57-81.