January 28, 2008
Middle Age As World Peak Of Unhappiness?

People in their 40s are most unhappy?

Using data on 2 million people, from 80 nations, researchers from the University of Warwick and Dartmouth College in the US have found an extraordinarily consistent international pattern in depression and happiness levels that leaves us most miserable in middle age.

Their paper entitled "Is Well-being U-Shaped over the Life Cycle?" is to be published shortly in Social Science & Medicine, the world’s most-cited social science journal. The researchers found happiness levels followed a U shaped curve, with happiness higher towards the start and end of our lives and leaving us most miserable in middle age. Many previous studies of the life-course had suggested that psychological well-being stayed relatively flat and consistent as we aged.

In Britain unhappiness peaks at the same age for men and women. But in America unhappiness peaks 10 years later for men than for women. Why is that? Any guesses?

Using a sample of 1 million people from the UK, the researchers discovered that for both men and women the probability of depression peaks around 44 years of age. In the US they found a significant difference between men and women with unhappiness reaching a peak at around 40 years of age for women and 50 years of age for men.

Once full body rejuvenation becomes possible will people with youthful bodies feel happier than our current middle aged? Or will people feel compelled to stay in competition and hence feel frustrated? Maybe youthful people will spend decades and even centuries competing to get ahead with bodies and minds that are capable of allowing them to compete very intensely? Then again, maybe the robots will take over and wipe us out.

This unhappiness curve was found in a very large assortment of countries which have radically different economic conditions, customs, and laws. This suggests a biological cause rather than a social one.

They found the same U-shape in happiness levels and life satisfaction by age for 72 countries: Albania; Argentina; Australia; Azerbaijan; Belarus; Belgium; Bosnia; Brazil; Brunei; Bulgaria; Cambodia; Canada; Chile; China; Colombia; Costa Rica; Croatia; Czech Republic; Denmark; Dominican Republic; Ecuador; El Salvador; Estonia; Finland; France; Germany; Greece; Honduras; Hungary; Iceland; Iraq; Ireland; Israel; Italy; Japan; Kyrgyzstan; Laos; Latvia; Lithuania; Luxembourg; Macedonia; Malta; Mexico; Myanmar; Netherlands; Nicaragua; Nigeria; Norway; Paraguay; Peru; Philippines; Poland; Portugal; Puerto Rico; Romania; Russia; Serbia; Singapore; Slovakia; South Africa; South Korea; Spain; Sweden; Switzerland; Tanzania; Turkey; United Kingdom; Ukraine; Uruguay; USA; Uzbekistan; and Zimbabwe.

Find your country on the list?

The researchers found that some of the most obvious suspect factors were not the causes of mid-life unhappiness.

The authors, economists Professor Andrew Oswald from the University of Warwick and Professor David Blanchflower from Dartmouth College in the US, believe that the U-shaped effect stems from something inside human beings. They show that signs of mid-life depression are found in all kinds of people; it is not caused by having young children in the house, by divorce, or by changes in jobs or income.

I wonder if the mid-life unhappiness is due to the end of dreams of what is possible in youth combined with the need to struggle daily to get ahead. Then as people get older maybe they develop peace of mind about their lots in life and feel less dissatisfied about their stations in life. As brains age memory recall decreases and we lose imagination. Maybe with age a decaying ability to daydream also reduces dissatisfaction over what is as compared to what might be.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 January 28 09:07 PM  Aging Studies

Jake said at January 28, 2008 9:22 PM:

When people are in their 40s, their children become teenagers. And that puts a great deal of stress on the parents. That is the answer to the question why people are unhappy in their 40s.

I saw a study of top male executives about 8 years ago. The study showed the one event that caused the most stress in their entire careers was when their children became teenagers.

David Govett said at January 28, 2008 10:52 PM:

Middle-age unhappiness, where the finish line is closer than the starting line.

James Bowery said at January 29, 2008 12:28 AM:

This is not a longitudinal study, hence quite weak for testing the proposed hypothesis.

Mthson said at January 29, 2008 3:47 PM:

Does it not being a longitudinal study really undermine the results?

If previous data contradicts it, can we put much stock in it yet? "Many previous studies of the life-course had suggested that psychological well-being stayed relatively flat and consistent as we aged."

Larry said at January 30, 2008 5:24 PM:

I agree with Jake. I believe it's teenagers. It shouldn't be to hard to test that hypothesis.

Cindy Nielsen said at February 26, 2008 11:02 AM:

I am the mother of 3 boys one out of the teen years, one in the teens and one soon to be and I have enjoyed them. Stressful, yes it can be, but I wouldn't blame unhappiness in your 40's on the teenagers. Hit the Barnes and Nobles store and read up on how to interact better with them. They can also be a true joy at this age.

Unhappiness in your 40's may come from developing enough wisdom to know your mistakes of the pasts and regretting things done, but learn from that and look forward to mentoring other younger people.

Lori said at February 26, 2008 9:28 PM:

Why does everyone blame teenagers?...Yes they are confused, misunderstood, wouldnt you be if you had a bunch of things that you did know what they were happening to your body? They are too old to fit in the "child" category, and not quite old enough to be in the "adult" category...so exactly where do they fit in?....Yes, if you have communication with your children from a very young age, build the trust between the 2 of you, then they will know they have someone they can go to for answers instead of giving the old "nobody understands me" line and they turn to other means to help bury that confusion (teenage and or unprotected sex, drugs, alcohol, criminal activities etc etc)...but the subject is really when is one most unhappy?...Well, I think it can hit at 12 or 42...it has to do with relationship, family, career, financial concerns, stress, and many more reasons but I dont think one certain age can be pinpointed to when one is most unhappy.

Not So Sad said at September 7, 2010 5:53 PM:

I believe it has to do with the reproductive cycle and societal constraints and expectations within which people are generally obliged to abide. These standards set up competitive periods of time during which people have 1) unreasonable expectations in their youth regarding their futures (fantasy), to include all the reproductive and creative processes that life entails in that period, and 2) the realization that many hopes, dreams and expectations have to be modified significantly to adjust to a new set of realities and expectations, namely old age and death.

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