Researchers have been tracking people’s levels of happiness and life satisfaction for years. Surprisingly, their findings show that life’s later years are among the happiest years.
The relationship between age and happiness makes the shape of a U-curve. Happiness tends to drop off after age 18, hit its lowest point during the middle-age years in the 40s and rises again from the early 50s through the 60s and 70s and even beyond.
Stanford University psychologist Laura Carstensen and colleagues found in a 2011 study that “the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.” Many people find this hard to believe, despite the evidence.
What’s more unbelievable is that the U-shape curve of happiness is consistent across individuals, countries and cultures—and even seen in apes. So, one wonders: Why is happiness so often U-shaped? Why the dip in middle age and upswing later in life?
One possible reason for the U-shape is that people often work the hardest in middle age. They dedicate themselves to careers, raising children and caring for aging parents, and, somewhere in their 40s, they deal with unmet dreams and life expectations. While in the 50s, many people report an increase in gratitude and appreciation for life—one that grows as they age and leads to more happiness and satisfaction throughout the years.
According to Carstensen and her colleagues, “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.” The link between social connection and happiness is evidenced once again with meaningful relationships showing up as an integral reason for the upturn in the happiness U-curve.
If another birthday has you feeling down, remember that many people age 65 and older rate themselves as “very happy.” This shows that, against popular thought, the aging process can be, and is for many, a good time—especially when surrounded by family and friends!