If you’re on the near side of middle age and feel yourself getting a little bit unhappier every year, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news: it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The good news? It gets better. Also: You’re not alone. Not at all.
Dartmouth professor David Blanchflower has studied humans all over the world and found that all humans, regardless of location and economic well being, experience a U-shaped happiness curve that hits its lowest point in the late 40s. For people in developed nations it’s 47.2; in developing nations it’s 48.2.
“It doesn’t seem to matter about income or gender or race or anything, you get the same pattern,” Blanchflower says. “And you get the same pattern if you’re a parent or not a parent, although we certainly see some evidence about the difficulty of having school-aged kids.”
Blanchflower’s data covers 132 countries in all regions of the world. Parents are neither immune nor more highly disposed to experiencing this unhappiness, he adds, although that unhappiness may worsen or be harder to shake based on economic well being. Part of Blanchflower’s research shows that unhappiness decreases for parents when economic stress is controlled for; in other words, it’s not the children that make parents unhappy, it’s the financial strain they can place on us. That financial comfort can make parents stress less about all aspects of their lives is hardly shocking.
This downswing in general life unhappiness is so universal that it extends beyond humans –Blanchflower says researchers have tracked similar paths of unhappiness in primates.
“Chimpanzees and orangutans have it, too, so maybe there’s something deeply biological,” he says.
If it doesn’t make you feel better to know that the whole world is most unhappy just before they turn 50, take heart in what happens at the far end of that U-shaped curve: By your early 60s, you’ll be as happy as you were in your late 20s; by age 70, you’re most likely happier than you’ve ever been before.
So why does this occur? Well, Blachflower’s data only show that this general decline in happiness exists. As to what drives the slow rebound in happiness after 50, Blanchflower offers anecdotal evidence, and it’s what might otherwise be called the attainment of wisdom: As we come to know ourselves better, we have fewer illusions about ourselves, our abilities, and the world around us, and we stop making the same mistakes we’ve been making all our lives.
“You start to get more realistic, it seems to me, you become more realistic about what you can do,” Blanchflower says. “And you kind of look to see what the alternatives are. In my case, school friends had died, and school friends had not done good stuff. And I found that, basically, life starts to get a lot easier. I didn’t make the same mistakes again. So we think it’s a great deal to do with that kind of reality and realism.”
If such life wisdom is attained through unavoidably making mistakes and losing your illusions, there are ways to minimize the pain you experience along the way, Blanchflower says.
“There are ways to make this better, which is community, support, family, social groups,” he says. In other words: ‘Don’t bowl alone. Go to dinner with your neighbors. Make use of social mechanisms makes things better.
Socialization and friendship is important, as isolation breeds loneliness and helplessness and hopelessness, Blanchflower says. It’s also helpful to gain — and keep — perspective, and to know others feel the same way you do.
“The first thing for people to understand is that this is common. It’s not just you. Lots of other people are going through this too,” he says. “Second, eventually it gets better. I mean, it does get better.”
It does. And it’s also worth noting that the financial hardships that drive some of this unhappiness tend to decrease as income rises.
“The evidence actually says that really it’s this financial thing that’s a big deal,” he says. “Eventually that will probably go away.”
For many parents, the financial stress related to kids often eases as they grow older. And, there are perks to becoming a grandparent.
“I had children, it was a struggle,” Blanchflower says. “Now I have grandkids and I can play with the grandkids, they can get to a sugar high, and I can hand them back to the parents.”