If you’ve been reading this blog the past few weeks, you know that January 2011 is the milestone on which the first of the 450 worldwide Baby Boomers turn 65. Preparing for this demographic, the Economist gives us a unique and positive perspective with its article, “The U-bend of life--Why, beyond middle age, people get happier as they get older.”
Or, in more poetic terms, “Life is not a long slow decline from sunlit uplands towards the valley of death. It is, rather, a U-bend.” Good news, too, when you also consider that we’re all living longer than our grandparents.
The answer to the perennial question – What makes people happy? – seems to relate to four main factors: gender, personality, external circumstances, and age. To sum up the findings on the first three in a nutshell, women tend to be slightly happier than men; neurotic personalities tend to be gloomy, while extroverts are just the opposite; and circumstances such as relationships, education, income, and health all shape the way people feel. No great surprises there.
Age is another matter. Contrary to the conventional view that contentment climbs through middle age and then declines sharply, the inverse appears to be true. In a 2006 study reported in the Journal of Happiness, when researchers asked a bunch of 30-year-olds and 70-year-olds to predict which group was likely to be happier, both pointed to the 30-year-olds. But when they asked the groups to rate their own well-being, the 70-year-olds were the happier bunch.
That finding seems to hold true no matter where you look. A pair of economics professors from Dartmouth and Warwick Business School studied the impact of age on self-reported well-being in 72 countries and found that people are at their unhappiest in their 40s and early 50s.
While the causes of the U-bend are debatable, its consequences stretch well beyond the emotional. As the Economist points out, “Happiness doesn’t just make people happy—it also makes them healthier… [and] happier people are more productive too.” Rather than seeing aging populations as “a burden on the economy and a problem to be solved,” the U-bend makes the case for a more optimistic view. And a good way to think of this large, aging demographic that will hit us, ready or not, in the New Year!
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Managing Director, The High Lantern Group, Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, and Executive Director of The Global Coalition on Aging.
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