If you’re aged between 35 and 65, like me, here’s some good news (for a change).
Things are going to get better. Or, more accurately, things are going to feel better.
The most comprehensive study ever done has shown, pretty much beyond any room for doubt, that things will get better for us as we get older. Actually, because we are getting older.
The so-called midlife mood slump is real. We are, on the whole, happier when we’re young and when we’re old. It’s the part in the middle that sucks.
“We find remarkably strong and consistent evidence across countries of statistically significant and non-trivial U-shapes in age… in well-being,” report David Blanchflower, professor of economics at Dartmouth, and Carol Graham of the University of Maryland, in a new paper. (The ‘U-shape in well being’ is the way economists describe the trend in average happiness in life, with the level starting out high, dropping lower and lower into the middle years, and then gradually rising again in old age.)
“The effects of the midlife dip we find are comparable to major life events such as losing a spouse or becoming unemployed,” they write. Statistically, they find, this midlife slump in average well-being is about half as bad as the collapse in well-being measured in Britain during the last two years as a result of the Covid crisis.
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And here was me, thinking the midlife slump was the result of being Generation X, sandwiched between a bunch of boomers who won’t get off the stage and millennials who can’t wait to run us over.
Blanchflower and Graham’s conclusion is based not only on their own research by a review of an astonishing 424 other studies conducted around the world, and mostly published in peer reviewed journals, that also reveal U shapes in happiness. In many cases, they find, the researchers themselves were unaware of the U shapes in their data.
Controversially, perhaps, they also argue that “studies cited by psychologists claiming there are no U-shapes are in error; we re-examine their data and find differently.” (Expect some fireworks in academe.)
Blanchflower and Graham report that this U shape in well-being has now been found in 145 countries and every U.S. state. Midlife is the worst period for most of us in terms of “unhappiness, stress, lack of sleep, depression, and even suicide.”
It turns out even this millennium’s surge in so-called “deaths of despair,” from drugs, alcohol and suicide, is seen most prominently in the age group 35 to 64. Why is midlife the gloomiest period in our existence? Why do we get happier again as we get older, even as our health gets worse and we start to confront our imminent demise?
Blanchflower and Graham’s conclusions, based on a review of psychological and biological data, ring true. “Individuals learn to adapt to their strengths and weaknesses over time, and become much more realistic in their expectations, as they age. They also become emotionally ‘wiser,’ and have fewer emotional swings, and appreciate life more as they age, not least as they are much more likely to see friends and siblings die.”
Of course there is also a gloomier side to this: Those most prone to depression, despair, and even suicide are least likely to survive into old age, so they’re not part of the sample group.
Meanwhile there’s another possibility worth considering, which is the course of individuals’ careers and work lives.
When they first join the workforce in their 20s, young people are apt to be blown away by the novelty of it, and especially the novelty of having money of their own for the first time.
They can see all the ways work sucks, but they figure it may get better as they progress and become more senior.
In their middle years the novelty has worn off — and they’ve come to realize the office isn’t getting better as they grow more senior, but is actually getting worse. By this stage there is nothing to hide from them the realities of managerial incompetence and office politics. By their middle years they are apt to realize the shocking truth that the emperor has no clothes.
As for the third stage in life? They’ve retired. They no longer have to go into an office. So they no longer care.
Tell me I’m wrong.