A new study challenges the accepted research on happiness and aging, contending that as we get older, we get happier. So, why the midlife crisis?
In a paper published in the journal Developmental Psychology, researchers from the University of Alberta argue that contrary to the belief that the happiness curve is U shaped – at its highest when we’re young and again when we’re old – there is no downward trend at mid-life. Instead, we experience an overall increase in happiness from the teen years on through middle age.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty. But by middle age, a lot of people have worked that out and are quite satisfied through the earliest child-bearing years,” says Dr. Nancy Galambos, lead researcher from the U of A’s Department of Psychology. The study followed two groups – one of high school seniors and another of university seniors – over a number of years and periodically asked them the simple question, “How happy are you with your life?”
Although participants expressed a slight dip in happiness between ages 32 and 43, they maintained much of the gains already achieved. Researchers found that common happiness indicators included marriage, good health and employment.
Another factor could be where you live. Last year, Statistics Canada released a report that put Sudbury, Ontario as the happiness capital of Canada. With 45 per cent of residents rating their life satisfaction at a nine or 10 out of 10, Sudbury handily beat out other contenders. Lead author of the study, Dr. John Helliwell, boiled it down to access to supportive social relationships, something readily available in a small town like Sudbury. “Most of the supports for a happy life are pretty local,” says Dr. Helliwell.
But how do we measure happiness? According to Dr. Galambos, the advantage of her study is that it’s longitudinal instead of cross-sectional. “If you want to see how people change as they get older, you have to measure the same individuals over time.”
Contrast that with a Duke University study reported in the Economist, where two groups – one of 30 year olds and one of 70 year olds – were asked the same questions about happiness. Here, the happiness U-bend revealed itself, as the 70 year olds rated themselves happy more often than the 30 year olds.
Yet self-reporting on happiness may not be the most reliable approach, even for something as personal as happiness. The Gallup World Poll, for instance, provides a measure of well-being rather than happiness, based on a variety of indicators including a country’s GDP per capita, life expectancy and freedom to make life choices. Last year, Canada finished fifth out of 158 nations in the Gallup Poll and Switzerland came out on top. Northern countries led the Gallup rankings, with Iceland, Denmark and Norway sandwiched between Switzerland and Canada in the rankings. The United States finished last year in 15th place.
The University of Alberta study tracked a total of 1,500 participants between the ages of 18 and 43 (high school group) and 23 and 37 (university group).