A massive study suggests you'll get progressively unhappier until you hit your 50s -- but not everyone agrees with the results

  • Roller coaster dropHoward Brier/FlickrIt’s downhill from here — or is it?

    A new paper suggests that happiness and life satisfaction hit rock bottom in a person’s early 50s.

  • The paper looked at people in countries all over the world and found the same trend.
  • Some psychologists disagree with the takeaway, saying that age doesn’t predict happiness or life satisfaction.

Everyone knows someone — your dad, your friend’s mum, your high-school maths teacher — who went through a midlife crisis.

They died their hair blue; they quit their job to go freelance; they rolled up to the school parking lot in a flashy convertible blasting Aerosmith. In a way, these 40- and 50-somethings are also the subjects of mockery: Tee hee hee! They’re getting old and they’re losing their minds!

But ask three different scientists about whether the “midlife crisis” is something universal, with predictable symptoms, and you might very well get three different answers.

A new working paper, by the economists David Blanchflower at Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald at the University of Warwick, supports the idea that the midlife dip in happiness and well-being is a real phenomenon. The paper rounds up the results of seven surveys of 1.3 million people from 51 countries across the globe.

When you graph those results, you consistently see what economists call a “U-curve,” i.e. a gradual decrease in either happiness or life satisfaction (depending on what the specific survey measured) up until the early 50s and then a gradual increase until old age.

You can see four of those graphs below, which reflect life satisfaction in the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Latin America. In each graph, factors such as gender, marital status, and education level are controlled for.

Blanchflower and Oswald have published papers with similar results before, for example in 2008. Their latest research has given the scientific community a chance to revisit a longstanding debate about whether most people hit a midlife low.

As Claire Suddath at Bloomberg reported, some psychologists say age doesn’t consistently predict happiness or life satisfaction. One ongoing study, led by psychologist Margie Lachman at Brandeis University and funded by the National Institute on Ageing, found that just over one-quarter of adults between ages 25 and 75 say they have had a midlife crisis.

Interestingly, the study notes that only about half of those who report having a midlife crisis say it was sparked by negative feelings about ageing. The other half cite issues such as divorce, job loss, or health problems — issues that aren’t necessarily unique to middle age.

Scientists are having a field day analysing these trends; but for an individual person, these results are hardly prophetic. Just because the research suggests that most people hit that midlife low — or don’t — doesn’t mean you personally will or won’t.

In fact, you might see a dip in your happiness and/or life satisfaction sooner (sorry) — say, in your 20s, when you’re trying to figure out what you want to do with your life.

Regardless of your age, psychologists have some suggestions for ways to overcome a slump.

For example, Robert Cialdini, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University and the CEO and president of Influence at Work, recommends simply paying more attention to the positive aspects of life, as opposed to the negative ones. Studies suggest that older people are consistently more likely than their younger counterparts to indulge in positive memories and thoughts — which could be why they’re happier.

The only relative certainty here is that more research is necessary. Until then, it’s probably best to keep tabs on the fluctuations in your own happiness and notice when you’re slipping.

Lows are inevitable — and maybe if we approach them with more acceptance than judgment, they will be easier to ride out.

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